A little more than a decade ago, I was among a few thousand starfuckers jammed into some kind of converted industrial space that wasn’t too far from downtown Austin. It was the last night of SXSW, and Kanye West was putting on a G.O.O.D. Music showcase. If you were inside that big dank brick room, it was only because you’d worked every connection you had, begging and cajoling and frantically emailing. At one point during the show, I felt someone jostling me from behind, and I shoved back. A minute later, I turned around, and the guy I’d just shoved was Donald Glover.
That night, Donald Glover and I, along with everyone else in that room, saw Yasiin Bey, back when he was still Mos Def. We saw Pusha T. We saw Kid Cudi and Big Sean and Mr. Hudson. We saw CyHi Da Prince perform with a violinist for some reason. Later on in the evening, we would see surprise guest Jay-Z come out to build advance hype for Watch The Throne, and we would see Kanye West forget the words to at least a couple of his Jay-Z collabs. And in one memorable moment, we saw John Legend walking out to a piano and plinking out a familiar melody.
At that point, the melody that Legend played was just shy of 10 years old. In its first incarnation, that melody — played on a piano that had been triggered by MIDI samples — was “Avril 14th,” a brief and lovely interlude on Drukqs, the Aphex Twin double album that turns 20 today. Drukqs includes a few tracks like “Avril 14th,” more-human-than-human lullabies that sound like music boxes buried in deserted alien cities. In the context of Drukqs, those tracks were crucial breathers, tiny lulls in between the jagged bursts of beat-splatter that, by 2001, had come to define the Aphex Twin style. Over the years, though, “Avril 14th” became something else.
On his 2010 opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West used “Avril 14th” as the basis for the eight-minute defensive romantic lament “Blame Game,” which gave all of us the strange sensation of hearing Chris Rock yelling about “some Cirque Du Soleil pussy” over a still and beautiful Aphex Twin instrumental. By the time Kanye West got to “Avril 14th,” though, “Avril 14th” had been around. The Aphex track had popped up on the soundtracks of films like Marie Antoinette and Four Lions, and the Lonely Island had sampled the song on “Iran So Far,” a 2007 SNL Digital Short where Maroon 5’s Adam Levine sang about crushing on Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In an email to Stereogum soon afterward, Andy Samberg explained that his group had sampled the Aphex track without clearing it and that NBC’s lawyers were trying to work out a deal with Aphex Twin after the fact. (“Iran So Far” was initially yanked off of YouTube, presumably over Aphex’s objections, but they must’ve come to terms since, since it’s back up there now.)
Today, “Avril 14th” has nearly 134 million Spotify streams — more than three times as many as any other Aphex Twin track. It feels ridiculous to discuss the idea of “hits” in relation to an artist as oblique as Aphex Twin, but by any standard, “Avril 14th” is now the biggest hit that Aphex Twin has ever made. This soft and plinky instrumental, so unlike most of Richard D. James’ music, has taken a strange route to popularity. At this point, it seems fair to say that millions of people who have never heard of Aphex Twin have enjoyed that placid little song. When Drukqs came out, nobody saw that coming.
Aphex Twin released Drukqs, at least in part, to get out of his deal with Warp Records, the cerebral British dance label where he’d made his name. (Warp has released dozens of beloved records of brain-scrambling music over the years, but it probably owes its entire vaunted reputation to Aphex Twin.) Drukqs arrived about five years after Aphex had released Richard D. James Album, the previous Aphex full-length. But Aphex had never gone away. Thanks to his slippery and elusive addled-genius image and his beautifully bugged-out collaborations with director Chris Cunningham, Aphex was pretty much the only cerebral dance producer beloved in dorky rock circles. Cunningham’s videos for “Come To Daddy” and “Windowlicker,” which grafted James’ face onto other people’s bodies in the creepiest ways possible, were dorm-room staples. By rights, then, heads should’ve been fired up about the prospect of a new 101-minute marathon of Aphex acid. But Drukqs landed with a sort of critical thud.
The problem, if there was a problem, was that Aphex Twin had spent the previous decade relentlessly reinventing his sound. He’d moved from glimmering gossamer techno to gasping and disappearing ambient cloud-music to sternum-shattering drill ‘n’ bass attacks to certain tracks, like 1997’s “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball,” that sounded like they’d been engineered specifically to break your brain into a million pieces when played on headphones. So when Richard D. James unleashed a massive 30-track collection that mostly explored territory that he’d already discovered, plenty of critics were nonplussed. Malcolm Seymour III in Pitchfork: “An album as conventional as Drukqs comes as a sad surprise.” Simon Reynolds in Spin: “The useless protean energy contorting and convoluting these songs just reminds me of grade-C Boredoms.” Pat Blashill in Rolling Stone: “James delivers his most irrelevant album to date.”
But Drukqs wasn’t just Aphex Twin playing around in his own past. Instead, the entire release of Drukqs would come to anticipate a great many album rollouts in the future. James had been working on the tracks from Drukqs since 1997, and he never intended to release most of them, but a fateful fuckup convinced him that he should put those songs out there. Talking to The Face, James told the whole story: “Basically, I had 180 unreleased tracks on an MP3 player, which I left on a plane. That’s why I released this album, ’cause all of those were on it. And I thought, ‘They’re gonna fucking come on the internet sooner or later, so I may as well get an album out of it first.'”
Internet-leak culture was pretty new in 2001, but if anyone was going to rabidly trade randomly acquired audio files, it would be Aphex Twin fans, a group of people who were very online before the rest of the world. In one interview, James said, “It’s kind of like an MP3 album, really. I don’t reckon that many people will do it, but the way I listen to music now is that I buy a CD, put it on the computer, and just take the tracks I want anyway. I’d hope that people would to the same with this CD.” For James Drukqs was supposed to be a grab-bag: “You could listen to all of it in one go, but I think you’d be dead if you did.” (In that same interview, James mentioned that he lived in an old bank building down the street from the Ministry Of Sound, the trance-centric London superclub, and that he sometimes threw water balloons at people waiting on line to get in.) James understood digital-era listening habits before any of his peers, and he tailored Drukqs to those habits.
The whole flow of Drukqs is relatively haphazard by design. One track will be all ominous ambient hums, while the next will be a frantic splutter of keyboard squiggles and splintered breakbeats, followed by a placidly lovely piano piece. If you’re looking for cohesion, then you might be able to hear it in the distant synth melodies that come up sometimes even in the bangers. And it’s clear that the tracks on the album are personal to James, as when he uses a happy-birthday answering machine message from his parents. But Drukqs is also one of our first true internet-era data-dump albums. Many more would follow. As a data-dump album, though, Drukqs is simply glorious. For mostly-clueless listeners like me, who knew the creepy videos and the Aphex logo but not the man’s whole busy arc up to that point, Drukqs fucking ruled.
For me, Drukqs was a great shuffle album. Parts of the record, I thought, were astonishingly beautiful. I definitely put “Avril 14th” on a couple of mixtapes, in the waning days when I was still making mixtapes. (“Avril 14th” stood out, even then. It was the one track on Drukqs with a title that I remembered, and that was only partially because so many other Drukqs tracks had names like “Kladfvgbung Micshk” and “Prep Gwarlek 3b.”) Other tracks were dizzy brain-jammers that flirted with concussive noise. The first time I listened to Drukqs, it was on headphones at a college computer lab. I remember thinking the album sounded nuts. Then, when I got done checking Makeoutclub or whatever, I took off my headphones and learned that a crew had been doing extremely loud construction just outside the student center. I’d just willingly accepted the idea that all those jackhammer sounds were part of this new Aphex Twin album, and it hadn’t really made me like the music any less.
Maybe the world would’ve appreciated Drukqs more if we’d all known that it would be the last major Aphex Twin work that we would hear for a very, very long time. In the decade-plus that followed, James released a few more hard-to-find records, often under different aliases, but he didn’t make another full album for another 13 years. When that album SYRO finally came out in 2014, it was mostly constructed like Drukqs — a fairly random shuffling of the tracks that James had been making at home in the intervening years. But nobody took SYRO for granted, and nobody accused James of repeating himself. We were all just happy to have him back.
It’s now been seven years since SYRO, and James hasn’t made another proper album. Indeed, the whole lesson of Drukqs and SYRO is that Aphex Twin was over the idea of proper albums a long, long time ago. Oftentimes, in the streaming era, labels and artists don’t even designate which songs are going to be hits. Instead, artists put out albums in massive chunks, without advance singles, or they throw a few songs up on SoundCloud. The world decides which tracks resonate. Nobody knows what’s going to catch on with the TikTok masses or whatever, and so plenty of the smartest artists just leave it up to fate. That’s essentially what happened with “Avril 14th” over the past 20 years. Maybe Richard D. James just figured that out before everyone else. These days, new Aphex Twin music mostly seems to arrive in unpredictable bursts of SoundCloud activity. If that option had been available to James in 2001, he probably would’ve taken it. Instead, we got Drukqs, and now we know enough to be thankful.