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White Noise: Feature: Aphex Twin

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Feature: Aphex Twin

Everyone knows that Aphex Twin is one of the godfathers of modern day electronic music, especially for his pioneering acid and ambient-inflected techno of the 90s. But how did he get to this pinnacle of respect and admiration? And with so many tracks and albums, where does the new Aphex Twin listener start? This feature will answer these questions and explore the musical journey that Richard D. James has taken over 20 years through some of his classic tracks.

James was born in 1971 and spent a great deal of time listening to the acid and ambient scenes that were exploding in the 80s, and their application to techno in the latter half of the decade. He took the name Aphex Twin as a dual reference, the 'Aphex' name derived from Aphex Systems Limited, a brand of audio processing equipment that itself took its name from 'analogue effects'. The origin of 'Twin' is far more interesting. James in fact had an older brother, also named Richard James, who died as a child before Richard D. was born (his grave can be seen on the cover of the Boy/Girl Song EP) and James took the 'Twin' moniker in reference to his being the single remainder of these two brothers. Taking this name, he released his first 12-inch EP Analogue Bubblebath in 1991 after spending his childhood tinkering with audio equipment and DJing at raves in Cornwall.

Analogue Bubblebath - 1991

In this title track many of the traits he would later become known for are already present: squelching synths, a hard, rushing drum beat and a superhuman knack for musical precision; techno layers emerge and recede in perfectly spaced intervals in this spacey, propulsive track. However here we also hear a softer edge, the lo-fi wash that thrums quietly in the background from around the 1 minute mark shows a lush, analogue quality that was lost until much later in his career.

After changing his recording name to AFX (one of many names he records under whilst tending towards the Aphex Twin staple), James went on to release the track that first brought him recognition, the single Digeridoo, first released on the Analogue Bubblebath 2 EP on his newly established label Rephlex records that he set up with a DJ friend, Grant Wilson-Claridge with the aim of promoting “innovation in the dynamics of Acid – a much loved and misunderstood genre of house music”.

Digeridoo - 1991

Here James first took on the cold acid precision mixed with a techno aesthetic that would become his musical trademark. Quite literally an electronic digeridoo sound, he recorded it at first to tire out the audiences in his DJ sets. The brutally paced synths were dancefloor gold and the ever-increasing force of the track made it interesting enough to get onto newly-legal radio station Kiss FM's rotation and got him quickly signed with R&S Records. He released the EP Xylem Tube with alarming rapidity shortly thereafter.

The climate for 'intelligent' techno was warming in the early 90s, leading to the genre title IDM – Intelligent Dance Music – that the artists it was applied to rejected, James himself stating “It's basically saying 'this is intelligent and everything else is stupid.' It's really nasty to everyone else's music.” The Orb had proven the commercial viability of ambient house music and with their chart-topping Blue Room, and in 1992 James released his first full-length album Selected Ambient Works 85-92 to massive critical acclaim, described by Allmusic as a “watershed of ambient music” and Pitchfork as “among the most interesting music ever created with a keyboard and a computer.” The album showed a heavier ambient leaning than his previous works as a collection of home material he had recorded during the past few years. If the timespan of the album title is to be believed, James created some of these tracks from as young as 14.

Heliosphan - 1992

In one of the many highlights of this landmark album, James showcases more fully formed and carefully constructed songwriting than ever before, with several layers of quick-fire percussion laying down a seamless beat for oceanic ambient sweeps and a distant but addictive recurring synth-line. Many of these tracks are ambient techno classics from the ethereal electronic fuzz of opener Xtal to darkly churning and atmospheric Hedphelym, the album is astoundingly consistent in its innovation and brilliance.

As his reputation grew, James was commissioned to remix artists such as St. Etienne, The Cure, Curve and many others; producing almost unrecognisable reworkings of the originals. In early 1993, James signed to Warp Records, the influential label trying to chart the future of electronic music with stablemates such as Autechre and FUSE. After the release of Analogue Bubblebath 3 in 1993 which rejected any ambient influence with bracing beats and hard acid-styles, James toured America with Moby and Orbital, continuing to play more of his headbanging fare. However following this, James did a complete 180 and released his second full-length, Selected Ambient Works II in 1994. These tracks, said to be inspired by lucid dreams and synaethesia, almost completely remove the beats and melodies of his previous work and lay bare unsettling ambient soundscapes.

Rhubarb - 1994

In this slow and majestic track, vast landscapes unfold from the loops of off-kilter ambient synths which throb with sorrow and life. This album was James' mellowest release so far, and in a characteristic move he didn't stay with the sound longer than this one release. Interestingly the track was looped for many months during BBC's digital widescreen test transmission screen as it was introduced across the UK in 1998, so it would've been on show for anyone tuning in for many months.

1995 kicked off with James' compilation release of Classics, including material of the Digeridoo and Xylem Tube EPs with a handful of other tracks. A harsher mix harked back to James' repetitive tracks with acid house sensibilities, analogue synths and punchy drum machines. Later in the same year he released his third full-length, ...I Care Because You Do, the last of his 90s material to be produced with analogue synthesisers, and also the first to utilise the motif of James' own face in his album covers and music videos.

Ventolin - 1995

In this abrasive dedication to James' asthma inhaler a high-pitched ringing sound reigns, referencing the reported side effect of tinnitus that this particular asthma drug induced. This is pounded out of shape by crashing drums in perhaps James' most aggressive release.

Following this James adopted software synthesisers, again ahead of the curve in adopting computers to make his music before the mainstream had even conceived of it. With his new equipment he produced the uncompromising Hangable Auto Bulb EP and later in 1996 his next album, Richard D. James Album.

4 - 1996

In the opener James elegantly fuses jolting beats with sweeping melodic fragments and synth-lines to craft one of his most masterly pieces. Elsewhere on the album James showed more range than previously noted, from the nostalgic fuzz of Fingerbib through the creepingly brilliant sampling of To Cure a Weakling Child and the combination of pastoral plucked strings and rushing DnB beats in Girl/Boy Song.

His next releases were aimed towards his skewed notions of becoming a chart-topper, an ironic twist on his heavy DnB beats were seen when he released the Come to Daddy EP, accompanied by a video produced by Chris Cunningham.

Come To Daddy - 1997 

All of his trademarks can once again be heard in the harsh stuttering beats and metallic time-stretched vocals. The jungle-inflected track's horror is almost so over the top that it loses its power (especially the children's song just after the 3 minute mark), but Cunningham's genuinely creepy video cemented this as James' highest charting hit and one of his best-known tracks to date.

Flim - 1997

Short and sweet techno-pop cut Flim was also included in the album, a floating synth tune that reins in the heavy horror and ended up as one of James' airiest and freest tracks, as well as one of my personal favourites. Placing these two tracks on the same EP hinted at the extremes of aesthetic to be seen more clearly in his most recent album proper, drukqs. However before he got there James also released his other MTV success Windowlicker with its own EP in 1999, another acid storm of DnB with a similarly creepy video, this time transposing James' face onto female models instead of children.

Vordhosbn - 2001

In 2001 the sudden release of drukqs showed an album that was a mixture of abrasive drumkit exercises such as the masterly and storming Vordhosbn that contrasted with tracks like mellow oriental opener Jynweythek (many of the tracks on the album are written in the Cornish language, for example 'jynweythek' translates as 'machinemusic').

Avril 14th - 2001

Most surprising of all were the carefully programmed computer-made piano instrumentals such as Avril 14th and closer Nanou2. Critics didn't take particularly well to the release, calling it a contract breaker with Warp (which holds some weight, his next major release was on his own Rephlex label), with some magazines such as Rolling Stone calling the piano pieces in particular “aimlessly pretty”, but you can judge for yourself- I see the tracks as aiming further to a deeply-felt mourning, complicated by the electronic shadow of their computer-creation. You can hear the fingers rising from the keys, before you realise there are no fingers at all in these John Cage-inspired prepared piano pieces.

Since this release all was quiet on James' front for a while, until in 2004 the rumours of a return to an acid-techno sound were realised with the Analord series (once more partly under the AFX name), 11 EPs of a few tracks each that return to using analogue equipment and a meticulous pressing technique for the vinyls.

Fenix Funk 5 - 2006

A selection of these tracks was compiled and released on Chosen Lords in 2006, and opener Fenix Funk 5 showcases both a return to acid-squelches over the beats but incorporates James' more melodic bent with chaotic syths that work fluidly to create an enthralling whole, showing that James is still going strong. Throughout this period James released nothing else, but still frequently DJed at festivals and club sets.

Since these releases there have been many rumours of new albums, with James stating in a 2010 interview that he had 6 completed albums ready to be released, but apart from a rumour that he is recording as The Tuss on the Rephlex label (for which there is rather compelling evidence), we will have to be satisfied with odd tracks for now until James deigns to return and show us how its done all over again.

In a career spanning 20 years, Richard D James has again and again shown himself to be a superb innovator, championing many styles and creating some that are uniquely his own. His music isn't the easiest to get into, but it is rarely less than thrilling, and hopefully this article has proved interesting or offered a way in for those looking to follow the progression of one of electro's biggest stars.

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At 2 June 2011 at 19:17 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

most informative


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