Richard D James' long-awaited return is a banging reminder of why the Cornish raver is one of music's true innovators
We’ve binned 13 calendars since the last Aphex Twin album, 2001’s ‘Drukqs’, which raises an obvious question: why now? Forty-three years old and certainly a millionaire several times over, Cornish rave goblin Richard D James has nothing to prove. Over five years in the ’90s, he perfected psychedelic hippy rave (1992’s ‘Digeridoo’), recorded perhaps the best ambient album ever (1994’s ‘Selected Ambient Works Volume II’), then teamed up with director Chris Cunningham to realise your worst drill’n’bass nightmares with 1997’s ‘Come To Daddy’ and its horrifying video. Somewhere along the way, he decided his royalties would be well spent on a post-World War II tank. Aphex invented the archetype of the mad techno boffin, and if he decides to pack up his creaky old synthesizers and retire to a farm in Cornwall, who’s gonna stop him?
But he’s back. And thank God. Because ‘Syro’ is amazing: bug-eyed, banging rave that sounds quintessentially Aphex while not quite sounding like anything he’s done before. It makes zero concessions to the modern day. There are no Skrillex-style bass drops, no trap beats, no Sam Smith guest spots. Just a new clutch of hyper-intricate electro-funk jams so crammed with melody it feels like they might at any minute pop and coat you in goo.
Emblematic is the opening ‘minipops 67 (source field mix)’, live versions of which have been knocking around YouTube for some time. Blippy breakbeat with a bit of ‘Windowlicker’-style vocal ooze and a melody that swings between childlike innocence and alien disquiet, it’s genetically engineered to paint a big smile across your gob. It’s merely an aperitif, though, for ‘XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix)’. Over 10 minutes long, it’s one of the tracks of Aphex’s career – a compound of misty synthesizers and floppy breakbeats that, even six or seven minutes into its running time, is still tossing unexpected sounds into the mix. The ringing strings of a dulcimer, demented slap bass, a child’s voice – his son, perhaps? – made all whirly and distorted, as if halfway down a whirlpool.
Whereas ‘Drukqs’ sometimes felt alienating or punishing, ‘Syro’ charms and beguiles. There are wild cards, like the funky drums of ‘produk 29’ or the jackhammer pound of ‘180db_’. More often, though, it sounds like ‘4 bit 9d api+e+6’, an outrageously jammy number that’s not unlike ‘Rushup Edge’, the 2007 album by The Tuss (itself thought to be an Aphex pseudonym). It seldom slouches, but if anything ‘Syro’ quickens the pace in its second half with a number of tracks in the vein of what Aphex’s own record label Rephlex used to call braindance – a lurch into demented digi-funk bangers and cartoon junglism that peaks with the beautiful ‘PAPAT4 (pineal mix)’. Then, the album closer suddenly confounds expectations. Debuted at London’s Barbican in 2012, ‘aisatsana’ is a serene piano piece redolent of French composer Erik Satie and set to distant birdsong, conjuring up images of Richard sat alone in his study at dawn or dusk, prodding at dusty keys, patio doors flung open to the outside world.
So why ‘Syro’, why now? The daft blimp that hung over east London announcing it, the Kemp Folds-style publicity photo, the press biog that calls him a “celebrated and influential electronic fartist” – none of this suggests Richard D James is a man kept up at night worrying about his good reputation. Who knows, maybe there were just too many melodies kicking around in his brain, and he had to funnel them out. Best we just give thanks and ask, optimistically: when’s the next one?