Thirteen years on from his last studio album proper, Richard D James finally released a new LP, ‘Syro’, last year. With the record now nominated for the Mercury Prize 2015, here’s a glimpse into the record and the demonic genius of Aphex courtesy of some of his biggest fans from the world of music…
It started, as most stories about Aphex Twin tend to, with a load of hot air. On August 16, a bright green blimp floated over east London emblazoned with the date “2014”. Inside the zero was the telltale alien-like ‘A’ that first appeared on the cover of Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’
What did it mean, if anything at all? Three years prior, Richard D James had told a Spanish Newspaper that he had “more than 10 or 11 albums” ready to go, the first confirmation that he was doing anything beyond sitting back and cackling at the rumours that had proliferated in his absence; his last proper album was 2001’s ‘Drukqs’, followed by the series of ‘Analord’ EPs in 2005 (released mostly under his AFX alias), while it confirmed the long-held suspicion that he had release an EP and full length as The Tuss in 2007.
Finally, it transpired, he’d decided to let the world hear one of those 10 or 11 albums. ‘Syro’ – “the most accessible one”, he later told Pitchfork – draws sounds from every era of Aphex, the pace gradually intensifying across its 64 minutes as if James were cranking a thumbscrew: what begins with intricate ambience passes through funky periods and eventually into the frenetic braindance that he invented. It’s an outstanding return to form of for an artist whose sole aberration has been his extended absence – not that James, who bills himself as a “fartist” in the ‘Syro’ press release (put through Google Translate 25 times and “amended” by him), has any regard for reverence or legacy. For that, we turned to some of his most famous fans. Perhaps Steve Reich put it best: “I can’t compare him to any composer and I don’t think of him in terms of anyone I’ve ever heard before.”
He’s an extremely strong musical personality” – Steve Reich
“I’d heard of Aphex Twin but I’d never heard a note of his music until I met him in Poland in 2011. To me he was Richard James and I found him a very bright, interesting and intelligent man. We talked a lot about soundwaves and his rework of my piece ‘Pendulum Music’. He created a 14-microphone version of the work embedded in these mirrored balls and it was quite a thing. He was able to control the feedback of the microphones because of his great dexterity and wonderful ears. He was also able to tune the feedback and keep it melodically interesting, and that’s quite a feat. I had a good time working with him. We had ideas bouncing off each other. He was very bright and a very serious guy. I was really impressed by him.
I went back and listened to two of his works after I met him and again was impressed by the variety of the work. Some of it sounded spooky, some of it not at all. He’s obviously a very strong individual. I can’t compare him to any composer I’ve heard of before. The little I’ve heard of DJs who remix my music, or just DJs in general, he is nothing like at all. He’s definitely his own man and an extremely strong musical personality.
This is a guy who is the real deal. He was really interesting and a pleasure to meet, and I hope that we have the chance to work together again.”
“It’s like he’s on another planet” – Farris Badwan, The Horrors.
“It was Chris Cunningham who got me into him. When it comes to creating atmospheres, it’s like he’s on another planet. It’s very alien, his whole thing. His recordings have a lot of character. Sometimes to hear something straightforward or simple, and you think anyone could do it, but his music has a character that other people can’t get near. It’s great music to have on in the background. Me and Chris would hang out at Chris’ house and listen to Aphex Twin in the background and it provided the most amazing atmospheres.”
“He provides hilarious fuck-you light relief from the po-faced superstar DJ cliché” – Matt Black, Coldcut/Ninja tune founder.
“Aphex was perhaps the first modern electronic tweaker to go really deep into the techniques and tech of the post-house sound. His use of tools like Kyma and SuperCollider was way ahead of the pack. ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ opened a space for other sounds beyond dance, trip-hop and chill. His legendary escapades, like delivering a random demo tape as the remix he should have been doing, whether true of not, provided hilarious fuck-you light relief from the po-faced superstar muso/DJ clichés. His is that rarity, an underground success who has stayed true to his own path. Cunningham’s ‘Windowlicker’ established him as a visual icon, and everyone else is still catching up.”
“He redefined what it means to be an icon” – Holly Herndon
“He’s one of the few people that has managed to seamlessly integrate experimental techniques into club environments without it ever feeling like a compromise. That is an incredibly difficult thing to do, and is something I aspire to achieve in my own work. It is incredibly inspiring to be able to look to a figurehead like that. He managed to make serious work without being austere, and managed to also activate the most powerful, interactive and evocative aspects of humour and play without coming across as novel. He is a special artist.
I also find it inspiring that he’s been successful in redefining what it means to be an icon – despite appearing in a lot of work, he has always been every creative and deliberate in the way he in which he is represented. His ideas are always more prominent than his physical form, which I think is an empowering gesture. It really feels like he was creating work that reflected and pushed the possibilites of the time, and that time can never be repeated, this is an important point; the avant-garde is fundamentally a time-sensitive thing, a spirit and an ethos, and so by definition those who would attempt to emulate something that happened 20 years ago would fail in matching the power and momentum of what he accomplished.”
He’s not just evolving electronic music, he’s being fucking funny with it too” – Tom Meighan, Kasabian
“He’s the fucking greatest, isn’t he? Thing about him is he’s a pioneer and a piss-taker – he’s not just evolving electronic music he’s being fucking funny with it, too, pushing people’s buttons with his dark sense of humour. His music’s insane, but from what I know about him he’s not – he’s just a regular guy from Cornwall, wife and kids the norm. Which makes it all the more amazing – listening to his music, it’s so mental, so maddening, you’d expect him to be some sort of deviant psycho. I fucking love him.”
“There’s an attention to detail that is inspiring” – Steven Ellison, Flying Lotus
“I first heard him in college – I was listening to Aphex, Amon Tobin, Squarepusher, a lot of drum’n’bass. That’s when I gave up on hip-hop, when I started digging into that stuff. It was inspiring – there’s an attention to detail, a sense of humour about it. Along with his weird detuning, all of it together’s quite unique. His tracks all have different moods, from the AFX stuff to his ambient works. I listened to ‘Stone in Focus’ [from ‘Selected Ambient Works Vol II’] so many times times in college. I remember listening to that before I went to bed, which was totally different to the ‘Drukqs’ stuff. When I made my [still unreleased] ambient album I was aiming for a similar thing, a dreaming thing.”
“He made me realize the possibilities in what had seemed like a finite world of predictable music” – Travis Stewart, Machinedrum
“Growing up in the ’90s meant there was only a few ways to find out about music, new or old. My sources early on were MTV, magazine and record shops. There were only a couple of shops around where I grew up that carried electronic music. Every time I would go to these shops there was always this mischievous face staring at me from the racks, taunting me to listen. One day I finally decided to buy the creepy-looking ‘Richard D James Album’ before that face started haunting my dreams. I listened to it for the first time while mowing the lawn; I wasn’t sure if the mower was breaking or if it was in the music. Something was happening to my brain; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I realised there were so many possibilities in what had seemed like a finite world of predictable music. All these new ideas started flowing as I did the final lap around the yard. Never would I have though that a landmark moment in my life would happen while cutting the grass.”