Apparently, I’m a late-in-life Aphex Twin fan. I’d always avoided this guy, mostly because everyone else was talking about him in such reverent tones — it was an easy turn-off for a perpetual hype skeptic like me. Now, after years of listening to electronic dance music, and after AFX is no longer the focal point of all discussion about the state of “intelligent dance music”, I feel safer approaching.
Part of what brought me to this stuff is that I suspected he might be an influence for stuff I’m already into, like Lone, goreshit and Machine Girl. And wow, he sure seems to have been! He’s got a strain of tracks that I’d call “breakcore with wistful ambience”; goreshit utilizes a similar sound on albums like Overspecialized, Steppa, Semantics Benzo, Bleak. Intricately chopped-up drum breaks and floaty, minor-key synth lines — sometimes even a similar cheesy, soundtrack vibe that always threatens to make me turn it off. Usually I don’t.
Luckily, I like other parts about Aphex’s sound. The drums! Richard D. James is a great drum programmer, and even better, his drums sound good. He’s got a way of making synthetic/digital drums sound alive. Part of this is down to the performance — like a lot of breakcore producers, he can’t stand still behind his “kit”. However, unlike many, his rhythm tracks often sound like live performances, and as a lover of drums and drummers, the tracks are ear candy. Of course, he’s also good at just cranking out beats; most of the patterns seems to come straight from funk, disco/house, or electro. In this area, I think I prefer his stuff to, say, Squarepusher, who tends to over-cook his rhythmic variation dishes.
I’ve done this with other artists in the past: Darkthrone, Popol Vuh, Stravinsky; approaching an artist’s complete discography as a single, massive entity, well after most interested folks have digested and moved on (or perhaps stayed put once they realized they’d struck listening gold). I’ve done the same with old television shows (Larry Sanders, Twin Peaks, watching the entire run of the US Office with my wife), and although it’s an intake-intensive way of discovering art, it seems to suit me okay.
Beyond James’ music being proto-breakcore, I hear a lot of the aforementioned electro (particularly a Drexciya influence, which isn’t surprising given that he released some of their music on Rephlex) and acid techno. Weirdly, for someone who works with breaks, he doesn’t do much drum-and-bass/jungle-influenced stuff, but for me, that helps keep his productions relatively undated. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a non-subtle 90s sound in the original records. Even on his newer stuff, his rhythmic busy-ness harkens back to an age when computer-made dance music producers often went out of their way to exploit newfound granular detail and sample editing capabilities. However, the rhythmic and tonal material itself could have happened at any time since then as well — and I realize now, has, in countless tracks I’ve jammed over the past 20 years.
Aphex Twin’s music seems fundamentally tied to the digital, the product of hyperactive curiosity, and flair for electrical engineering. Choices about when to vary the sound of a kick drum, or oscillate a synth wave are manipulations of signal and frequency, as opposed to harmonic progression or traditional song structure. This isn’t to say there is no structure; the stuff I like the most does unfold in a way both logical and intuitive, but it’s an “intuition” I had to learn over the course of 20 years of listening to electronic music, being on the internet and simply trying to express myself in the digital world.
So far, I’ve heard some of the Analord series (as AFX), Richard D James album, the Tuss record, Syro, Drukqs, and assorted singles/remixes. Oddly enough, I haven’t really sat down much with his most famous record (Selected Ambient Works, 85-92) because thus far, his ambient material hasn’t been as interesting to me as the beat-driven stuff. I’m guessing this isn’t how most people discovered his music, but even on his less-than-classic albums, I find it really easy to glean his style. My familiarity and interest in James’ music progresses slowly, but (hopefully) deeply.
Anyway, thanks AFX! Sorry for sleeping on you for so long. Looking forward to m*0r_e.