Friday, October 17, 2014

album review: 'syro' by aphex twin

I've written in the past that it's hard to discuss legends. Especially legends that have come to shape so much of modern music to the point where some critics describe revisiting their old classics as 'vintage'. And for me personally, it's even harder when the genre is electronica, an musical genre that I'm only beginning to peel into in any significant way outside of specific offshoots like trance. To go back to the source is more than a little intimidating, especially if you have the uneasy feeling that a mob with pitchforks and torches will set you on fire if you don't throw out critical acclaim.

So on that oh-so-comforting note... Aphex Twin. The stage name of the man with three first names Richard David James who used the Aphex Twin name among several others, his first release was a compilation of ambient mixes he had recorded from '85 to '92 - and surprise surprise, it's excellent. Even though on that album you can hear the sounds that would come to dominate so much of modern music, Aphex Twin had the twin advantages of good melody and even better texture, taking sounds that might be considered 'vintage' now and still crafting memorable and potent songs. And yet with Selected Ambient Works Volume II, some of that texture evaporated into a set of sparse, underweight and underwritten melodies that lacked presence even for ambient music and went on a good ninety minutes longer than they should have, even though it did get a fair bit better in its second half. Fortunately, that texture came back for 1995's ...I Care Because You Do and especially for the spiky yet beautifully melodic 1996 Richard D. James Album, a record that even today has a decidedly unique sound with the blend of strings, slightly off-kilter synth tones, and drill-like percussion, and has held up incredibly well. 

Then came 2001's Drukqs... and here's the thing, I'd argue about half of that double album works incredibly well - experimental, drill & bass inspired production that holds up as innovative even today, and there are some phenomenal melodies that are utilized across that record that I really love. But there are also more tracks that go on longer than they should and the harpsichord interludes really did wear out some of their welcome. And from there, James decided to take a long break from using the Aphex Twin moniker until a Kickstarter campaign to reclaim the old, unreleased record Caustic Window from a record collector showed a great deal of popular interest still in his work. And to some extent that catalyzing incident is important, and was indicative of what might be on the record - we probably weren't going to be getting the insane, eclectic experimentation, but a piece that was sure to be a crowdpleaser for long-time Aphex Twin fans. Did we get that?

Well, from the critical response from Aphex Twin fans and critics alike, they got exactly what they wanted. But for me... I've been sitting on this review for probably a month now and after so many listens to this album, my ultimate conclusion of on this record is that it definitely is good... but I don't love this album or think it's incredible. And really, that opinion has come from a lot of listens, because this album is definitely a grower and after the first four or five listens, I still had definitely not warmed to the record. At this point I'll definitely acknowledge it as a pleasant listen, but beyond that, and especially compared to the high points from James' earlier releases, Syro doesn't really grip me and I've spent the past month trying to figure out why.

So let's start with what I've always loved about Aphex Twin: mix balance and production. James still has a knack for creating deep, layered mixes with so many interweaving elements on an organic tableau, and his knack for textured percussion is second to none. And it's not just the texture, but the variety in the drums, from the thicker, African-inspired progression on '4 bit 9d api+e+6' to the heavier hi-hats and spiky line on 'CIRCLONT14' that has a few great beat changeups. In terms of transitions, Aphex Twin has a knack for some of the most gradual, incremental shifts across the album, shifts that you might barely notice until they happen, and while I do wish some of the shifts had landed some more definitive emotional highs or crashes, I can appreciate the intricacy. In fact, if we were looking for a solid word to describe this album, it'd be 'gradual' - there's no sudden moves, no real surprises, no out-of-nowhere smashes or breaks, this is an album that flows with a lot of poise and precise control, and yet the production is so good you hardly notice it.

And going beyond that, Aphex Twin puts a lot of his skills in ambient music to good use in crafting the backgrounds of these tracks with startling detail, not just in mix-depth but in interweaving with the primary melodies and beats. The opening track 'minipops 67' shows some of this, but the real highlights are the scintillating 'XMAS_EVET10' complete with chimes, the great groove-driven 'produk 29' that has this gorgeous high synth tone and manages to handle some genuinely unsettling transitions very well, the atmospheric sinister growls at the back of 'CIRCLONT6A' that balance incredibly well against the shifting melody line, and especially on the title track 'syro u473t8+e', which has easily my favourite melodies on the album with great interplay between these shimmering background tones and the static-punctuated lines at the front. Aphex Twin even dabbles a little in drum 'n' bass inspired production on 'PAPAT4' and the more industrial-leaning 'S950tx16wasr10', the latter having this great almost gothic background I really dug. And the quiet moment of 'aisatsana', a slow-burn piano piece at the end of the album, it was a nice callback to those beautiful interludes I loved on previous works.

But then I started thinking - I really loved a lot of the backing tableaus that built these tracks and gave them atmosphere - the stuff at which Aphex Twin is exceptionally strong - so where is this album not really clicking for me? Well for as much melodic interplay and and solid percussion as there is on this album, it seemed like at every moment where Aphex Twin was looking to add new flavour, it rings as a miscalculation. The most immediately noticeable is the vocal snippets - for as methodically constructed as these songs are, to overlay vocals that are chopped into something vaguely harmonic doesn't really add to the tracks as they detract from them. James reportedly had whole vocal tracks recorded that went unused, and the more I listened to every pitch-shifted or chopped up moment, I understood why. But it's not just the vocals, but some of the synth tones as well - whether they're flat and blaring like a bee buzzing by your ear on 'CIRCLONT14' or incredibly cheap-sounding on 'Produk 29' or at worst like wet, gurgling farts on songs like 'CIRCLONT16'. The absolute worst tracks on the album is where the poor choice of synth tones combines with a lack of melodic ideas, like on '180db_' where the clashing fuzz and blaring synths are combined with a progression that barely changes or evolves, or the stretched vocal sample that bleeds into an incredibly flat and cheap-sounding melody on 'fz pseudotimestretch+e+3' that feels more like a song fragment than anything else. It's these element that contribute to the really odd mood I get from this record, because outside of the title track or 'XMAS_EVET10', I don't get a real sense of drama or thrill or groove or even the quiet brilliance that highlighted James' best ambient pieces. The incremental, sometimes discordant shifts come across slight twinges of discomfort, moments to make the listener feel slightly discomforted, yet without the payoff of those moments or the raw experimentation to make up for it. It's why despite how much I liked 'aisatsana', I get why many would see it as anticlimatic.

So in the end, I'm really conflicted by this record - which is odd considering how much I liked it. And part of it is inevitably tied to expectations - for a producer who has such a reputation for not just fantastic production but for pushing experimentation in electronic music even further, to see him return to a comfort zone despite the expansion of musical technology or the electronic scene is a little bewildering. And while I can see this record definitely satisfying the majority of Aphex Twin fans, I get the feeling it'll ring as almost more challenging for those expecting more immediacy to the album's experimentation - and I include myself in that number. It's a more subtle record - but that said, when that subtlety doesn't land a payoff as potent or as interesting beyond impressive craftsmanship, it doesn't really resonate with me as well. All of this comes back to the fact that I do like this album, but I don't love it. For me, it's a 7/10 and a recommendation if you're a fan of IDM and want to see one of the masters returning to his natural wheelhouse with an album that's not quite safe, but definitely not dangerous.

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