After last year’s comeback, the robots threaten to take over on Richard D James’ challenging new EP
Among plentiful praise, one of the main criticisms hurled at Aphex Twin’s ‘Syro’ when it arrived last year was that it sounded a bit straightforward, a bit safe. As if Richard D James – lest we forget, a man who once DJed using not vinyl, but a sheet of sandpaper – had, in his dotage, decided to give the people what they want. Well, rest assured, ‘Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt 2’ is not playing to the gallery. Billed as an EP, here are 13 tracks which suggest pretty much what the title implies: a room full of drums, cymbals, piano, pipe organ and various stringed instruments played not by human hands, but by signals zipping around circuit boards. True, manufactured pop music.
In Aphex Twin’s curious milieu, there is some precedent for this. Rephlex, the record label he announced the closure of last month, featured figures like Pierre Bastien, a Frenchman who builds mechanical orchestras out of Meccano. More recently, old comrade Squarepusher teamed up with the Japanese robotics company Z-Machines and composed a strangely beautiful EP played entirely mechanically, ‘Music For Robots’. Still, ‘Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt 2’ – don’t go looking for a part one, you won’t find it – sounds like it’s on its own strange course. Electronics squelch and strings ring over stiff-armed drum breaks. Sombre melodies are picked out on a piano at a speed possibly just beyond the limits of human ability. A track titled, in classic Aphexese, ‘disk prep calrec2 barn dance [ s l o ]’ consists of just over four minutes of some oddly tuned stringed instrument ringing away in some alien chord.
There’s a term, “uncanny valley”, which refers to the unsettling feeling when something synthetic appears almost human, but, crucially, not quite. ‘Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt 2’ makes this place its home. It is occasionally quite beautiful – see ‘piano un10 it happened’, a brief but delightful solo piano piece of the kind he does so well. Mostly, though, you suspect Richard D James makes this sort of music as a challenge – to his audience, and to himself. On those terms, it succeeds admirably. But don’t worry: the robots aren’t taking over quite yet.