Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Syro, scenius, 'stasis - and the "saming change"

"Has Underground Culture's obsession with the past endangered its future?' * asks Joe Zadeh at Noisey , using Aphex Twin's Syro as springboard for a survey of the panorama of "same old shit" that is the present   

I don’t think it’s necessarily retromania when an established, much-loved artist returns after a long period of inactivity.  There’s plenty of examples of people in all kinds of artistic fields who just disappear – get burned out or feel like withdrawing from view – and then their passion to create reignites or they start craving a bit of attention and admiration.  And it’s to be expected that their forlornly devoted audience will go into raptures when they return.

That said, it could be taken as significant and symptomatic that by far the biggest excitements of 2014 so far concern the return of Legends after Long Absences - Kate Bush and Richard D. James.

Zadeh's assessment of Syro --  "a time-travel through a meteor shower of eighties synth-funk" interspersed with "fond, self-referential glances at the career of Aphex Twin", resulting in "a sound unlike anything else this year" but "quite a lot like everything from the past thirty years" -- seems accurate and fair. 

But on the question of whether this means he's disappointing our expectations of a new breakthrough, I have to wonder: was Richard D. James ever really an innovator as such? Did he lead the way and point to the future, or was he just very alert and quick off the mark? For if you look back over his discography, for the most part he's gone along with the general direction of techno. His earliest stuff was basically banging 'n' slamming hardcore: strident percussion + caustic ear-punitive sounds, not far from what labels like Rabbit City and Rising High and PCP were doing then, but more accomplished. He was at the forefront of the drift towards floaty, dreamy idyllictronica but he wasn't alone: Carl Craig and The Black Dog were heading that way too, among others. Likewise the shift towards darker abstract atmospheres with Selected Ambient Works II: you could sense a reaction against first-wave ambient brewing, as it got too aqueously placid and pseudo-spiritual serene, such that Kevin Martin pulled together the Isolationism compilation. Then jungle and drum & bass shook everything up - once again James was one of a number of IDM artists (Vibert, Squarepusher, Paradinas, others) who recognised the new cutting edge of micro-edited breakbeat hyperkinesis, who embraced it and pushed it to an absurdist extreme. 

He's a genius, for sure, but where it comes into play is the melodic invention, harmonic and textural subtlety, emotional depth...  and an overall level of musical accomplishment. Also personality and whimsical humour. It's these things that made Aphex's work stand out in a crowded field of fundamentally similar and equally of-its-time music.

A genius who surfed the breaking waves of scenius. 

Generally with electronic music, the evolution is driven by much more wider and impersonal forces – what the technology makes possible, what the dance-floor audience is responding to. 

Perhaps the long silence - unbroken except for the overtly retro, back-to-analogue, back-to-my-roots Analord -- of Aphex since Drukqs just reflected the lack of a dynamic, incontrovertibly innovative and where-it's-at direction in 21st Century electronic music. **

Syro itself doesn't provide that missing direction - there's nothing here for others to imitate, I don't think.  

What it does do is exemplify the alternative strategy that reigns today in most fields of sonic endeavour: archaeological expeditions through relatively recent music history. 

In some ways, it's easier to construct a quirky, idiosyncratic sonic identity by combining past elements, simply because there is such a rich, diverse set of pasts to draw upon. (Ariel Pink's imminent Pom Pom exemplifies this, as all his best work does).

Conversely, when there is a clearly defined cutting edge, it creates homogeneity (think of the effect on the radio of Beatles/Stones, Chic, Timbaland). Innovation seems to promote swarming behaviour, it works as a centripetal attractor, it depersonalises. In the absence of time-defining sounds or sceniotic factors, retro-eclecticism and quirky individuality dominate. 

Personally I prefer a changing same to a richly differentiated stasis. 

Or perhaps I mean, a saming change - the innovation that enforces its across-the-board adoption, the makes the scene move in lockstep.

Not sure what I really make of Syro as yet.  There is a lot to digest. Almost literally - it reminds me of an overstuffed sandwich, or a burger with too many toppings.   The music seems to ooze out at the sides. There's a kind of lateral excess - all the squelchy bass-texture wobbling and wibbling – that interferes with the linear propulsion of the grooves.  It's different, for sure -- no one else is doing anything like it at the moment -  but I don't  quite love it as yet. 

Gonna keep trying, though - it's Richard D. James! The Aphex Twin!

* The headline in itself triggers a twinge of deja vu pour moi, or perhaps deja pensee.

** What, during the dozen years since Drukqs - in itself reflecting the sputtering twilight of late 90s ideas - could RDJ have latched onto, been spurred into action by? The wobble/bro side of dubstep, perhaps. And currently, maybe, certain things going on in EDM production. But that would be leap too far for RDJ. So instead of digital maximalism, with Syro he's opted for analogue maximalism.


  1. Great post, but this positioning of RDJ's resurgence as a "comeback" after a "long absence" seems a rather odd position to take on an artist who has released about 8 hours' worth of new music over the last 13 years - a good deal more than many comparable artists. (The Tuss stuff from 2007 seems to be that which with which "Syro" is most readily comparable, while it was only six months ago that the Caustic Window LP - itself a "new" release of sorts - appeared in a most innovative and unique way.)

    Also current discussion seems to omit the fact that RDJ has spent the last 13 years active primarily as a "live" artist / DJ - fitting in with the general noughties trajectory of live performance being a more active / profitable endeavour than recorded music.

    His "remote orchestra" stuff from 2010-2012, for example, seems to have been critically ignored in the context of recent creative activity, because it doesn't seem to fit this whole "comeback" narrative (being pushed by the press machine of Warp, it should be admitted). Yet for Aphex, this foray into avant-garde composition has been definably new territory, new ground, previously unexplored.

    I very much enjoyed "Syro" but can't help noting its perceived absence of "newness" might have something to do with the fact that some of its tracks ("Minipops" for example) have been appearing online since as long ago as 2007:


    Is it right to call it a "comeback" or a "long absence" even if the artist in question has been making public/live appearances with relative consistency and frequency over the last 13 years, high profile slots at Coachella, Glastonbury, Barbican, supporting Bjork etc.?

  2. Well it's the first release under his most visible, well known identity since Drukqs, that''s undeniable, surely?

    The Tuss stuff was very low key, wasn't even openly identified as RDJ.

    Caustic Window was a reissue, or first-time issue of unreleased stuff - and i believe precipitated by the fans taking the iniative?

    The last major RDJ release of material was all that Analord stuff, which was almost a decade ago. Some great stuff in there, but it was very much going-back-to-my-roots, stepping out of the current musical conversation move.

    So i think it's fair to say that as a recording artist he has been very quiet - certainly compared with the series of big musical statements he made from "Analogue Bubblebath"/ Didgeridoo" all the way through to "Windowlicker" and "Come To Daddy" . He hasn't made the kind of interventions in the electronic music scene that he did across the length and breadth of the 90s, nor approached anything like the hyperproductivity of releases (not all of them solid-gold by any means) in that period.

    Haven't even heard of the Remote Orchestra stuff, what's that?

  3. The first Analord release (Analord 10) from 2005 was released as "Aphex Twin" while the accompanying Analord binder (and "Chosen Lords" from 2006 for that matter) were emblazened with the same distinctive Aphex logo that appeared on the notorious 'blimp'.

    I seem to remember "Chosen Lords" also being described by Pitchfork in 2006 as his "first proper full-length since Drukqs".

    Aphex Twin''s Remote Orchestra (2010) - 48 piece string section and a 24 strong choir controlled remotely, using midi controllers, lots of headphones and some remote visual cues http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dph-bkJL_wM

    Short documentary about the making of it - http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/creators/aphex-twin

    Aphex Twin - Interactive Tuned Feedback Pendulum Array (2012):

    Even though he has been quiet with the Aphex moniker, 8 hours' worth of music (including 5 and a half hours of Analord) is still a staggering amount of stuff to have been released during a supposed period of "silence" or "quiet" - especially considering he's still been most active with live performance and DJ sets in that time.