Aphex Twin’s return to Europe’s clubbing capital reframes the history of electronic music

Funkhaus, Berlin, 1 November 2018

It’s been 15 years since Richard D James aka Aphex Twin’s last appearance on German soil, and in the lead up to his oddly contentious comeback show at the almost equally historic Funkhaus venue, fans online are trying to dig up party flyers of AFX raves gone by. “Nope, two mentions, in all of German history, that’s all I can find,” captions one user, alongside scans of two tattered old posters. The chat runs concurrently to scores of people offloading last minute tickets – when the show was announced back in May, it was a billed as a concert, presumed to be in Funkhaus’ grand Socialist era performance hall. Two days before the event, a timetable reveals – confusingly – Aphex Twin won’t be appearing until the ‘afterparty’, which kicks off at 11pm, in the large warehouse space next to the concert hall, leaving a lot of poor Berlin artists grumbling they’ve paid 70 euros for a ticket to a club night. 

Expectation mismanagement aside, the event unfolds as a warped history lesson that speaks both to Aphex Twin’s own long legacy as an electronic pioneer since at time before the Berlin wall had even fallen, and the German capital’s own evolving relationship with history and itself.

Built in the 1950s in the former East Berlin under the repressive, tightly monitored eye of Socialist East Germany, Funkhaus was originally built collaboratively by architects and acousticians as a broadcast centre, to capture sound and music in such a scientifically refined manner that every syllable uttered or violin string played could be played back to the world as elevated proof of the Communist cultural-technical triumph. What the bureaucrats of then would make of its reinvention tonight as a laser-festooned, holy church of IDM is question you had time to contemplate during the slightly slow and awkward start to the show. For the first half an hour it’s unclear whether we’re being treated to music from Richard D James’ ambient-minimal catalogue, or whether the show has actually begun, as the visual jitter and the bleeps and bloops could be mistaken for equipment testing. But once he drops the unmistakeable kick of ‘Bicep’s Orca’, and the lasers come on, the atmosphere rapidly changes.

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For the next hour we cycle through the styles and eras the Aphex has been at the heart of or has been an influence for. Crushing techno, iron fist acid rave and juddering jungle breaks orbit through the room alongside dips in and out of his own deep, experimental archive. Classics like Royal House’s ‘Dirty Beats’ muscle up against a remix of AFX protegé Lanark Artefax’s ‘Touch Absence’. The only recognisable Aphex Twin song proper is a slowed down play through of ‘Vordhosbn’, from 2001’s ‘Drukqs’, which is received as a rapturous high point of the set. As is apparently customary at every underground electronic music show, whether you’re Aphex Twin or a relative newcomer looking to state your intent, the final 10 minutes or so of the performance is handed over to obliteratingly loud feedback and strobe – a ritual hazing that a lot of people seem to love, even though the honest part of your brain thinks “ok, fine, i get it, but you could be using these minutes to play ‘Windowlicker’.”

Visuals on the night are, as usual, provided by long time collaborator Weirdcore, whose audience facial mapping tricks have been a staple of Aphex Twin shows for a decade now, but this is the first time for Germany to experience them close up. One thing that gets spoken about less is Aphex Twin’s contribution to the rise of the high concept ‘Live A/V’ performance – ever present at electronic events around the world today – so even though none of the tricks on display tonight are new, it’s an apt reminder of where the trend started. Next year is Aphex’s record label Warp’s 30 anniversary, and it’s rumoured has it they are going to be unveiling a new immersive show to celebrate it, with the possibility of the man himself at the helm.

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Finally, for Berlin itself, the show is something of a watershed in its evolution as Europe’s party capital. The venue experiments with a cashless system that requires everyone to purchase pre-paid cards or upload their credit card details in advance. Rather than an innovation in efficiency, it seems to offer zero real benefit but acts as a neat psychological trick to increase spending across the night. Judging by the grumbling in the crowd, it’s the clearest sign of of where Berlin is at – from the 90s heyday of free-for-all underground club culture to an automated, gradually sterilised and consumption led music entertainment market. It doesn’t make 90 minutes of glorious Aphex Twin music in itself any less an enjoyable experience, maybe just a more expensive, and slightly less surprising one.