Aphex Twin – ‘Syro’ (Warp)

Many have tried to sound like Aphex Twin but only a few have succeeded. It isn’t hard to see why so many have tried to imitate the AFX sound. As a pioneer of the early 90’s Experimental Bleep Techno/Braindance/IDM (or whatever you want to call it) movements, Richard D James has managed to popularise an impressively complicated and foreign sound. It also isn’t hard to see why so many have failed to capture and develop the sound. It’s notoriously difficult to isolate exactly what it is that makes Aphex Twin music sound like ‘Aphex Twin’, so much so that countless internet forums have puzzled over whether certain releases are actually AFX in disguise. Now after what seems like an endless wait, does what is definitely a release from the man himself (although knowing James’ prankster nature there’s a chance this could in fact be an elaborate hoax) actually sound like Aphex Twin?

The trademarks are certainly all here. Obnoxiously convoluted and seemingly abstract track titles designed to make spell checkers sad? Check. Irreverent and creepy cover art featuring James’ face and the iconic AFX logo? Check. What I think are samples from a porn film? Check. Most importantly though a diverse collection of tracks featuring wildly varied timbres, unmatched drum programing and a sense of playful joy paired with hard edged ravey introspection? I’m very happy to report that’s a check too.

In many ways, ‘Syro’ sounds like an unheard ‘best of’ compilation album, with direct influences from previous tonally distinct albums present throughout. In one the album’s standouts ‘4 bit 9d api+e+6’, it’s possible to hear sonic similarities with the early ambient albums. On ‘S950tx16wasr10 (Earth Portal Mix)’ you can hear audio nods to the ‘Drill n Bass’ of the ‘face’ albums. The primary influence here however is the divisive ‘Drukqs’,  with the majority of tracks incorporating ‘Drukqs” natural extension of ‘Drill n Bass’ into Autechre-esque hyper-intricate drum programming. Where ‘Drukqs’ however lost favour, was when the drums became about precision rather than play. ‘Syro’ doesn’t fall down this same pitfall.

Even without as many samples of creepy children (although I believe his own kid is in there singing scarily) as in previous albums, play is very much present throughout the album. Taking a glance at the impressive list of equipment used in ‘Syro’, even if you haven’t a clue what most of it refers to, it’s very clear Richard had a lot of fun making this album. Unlike other musicians with impressively decedent studios, it’s apparent that’s he’s put the diverse range of equipment to good use, perhaps even too much so…

It’s a dense and intimidating work. If any Aphex Twin virgins are reading I’d highly suggest that this isn’t the album you start with. I imagine this will be music to many AFX veterans ears as complexity is king right? Throughout the roughly hour running time there are plenty of moments where the sheer genius of the music shines through – yet these brilliantly alien moments rush past a little too quickly for my liking. This is probably a good thing in the long run as it provides rewards to the carefully aesthetic listener. In the process of writing this review I’ve had to scrap quite a lengthy paragraph criticizing ‘XMAS_EVET10 (Thanaton3 Mix)’ as sloppy and drawn out because on the eleventh listen I’ve been seduced by its spirited but slow rhythms. ‘Syro’ is certainly a grower no doubt.

Syro’s closer ‘Aisatsana’ drastically changes the tone of the work to a much more sombre affair. It’s an obvious comparison but the simple piano solo paired with the tastefully incorporated birdsong is very much in the vein of another great eccentric composer – Erik Satie. Satie’s most famous works played with the themes of interpretation and variation by composing three similar pieces for a Greek vase being gazed upon at different angles. Like James the similarity of his past work fed back into future work. His Furniture music had the capacity to be playful but also very fragile. As experimental as both composers are, they both succeed because there experimentation is grounded in something very touchingly human – no matter how eccentric or elusive they both might be.

‘Syro’ is out now on Warp. Buy it here

William Warren