- In case you haven't heard it, there's a peculiar story behind Caustic Window: one of five existing test-pressings of a classic artist's mothballed album winds up on Discogs, and a crew of message-board devotees organize a crowdfunded effort to buy the record and digitally distribute it. That test-pressing now belongs to a Swedish video game developer, who paid a cool $46,300 for it on eBay, and those who gave to the Kickstarter campaign now have the tracks as lossless digital files. (For everyone else, there's YouTube.) Most importantly, the world now has an album from Richard D. James's golden era that most of us didn't know existed until a few months ago.
Music journalist catnip of this strength rarely comes across our desks, and despite James being responsible for some all-time electronic classics, it's hard to imagine the music could possibly live up to the backstory. Caustic Window is far from a disappointment, though, even if it sits closer to Drukqs than the Richard D. James Album on the Aphex Twin continuum. It has a dark, subtle and eerily prescient style that doesn't sound much like anything else, inside James's world or out. I have no idea why Rephlex pulled the album and got the handful of people who owned a copy to swear they'd keep it to themselves, but I'm glad we're getting to hear it now.
I say "eerily prescient" because the tape hiss, brittle sound design and playful half-melodies that defined James's mid-'90s peak sound especially fresh in the current musical moment. Though the individualist bent that once set music like this apart (what made people once call it "intelligent") doesn't sound so far-out anymore, Caustic Window also feels as tied to classic techno as anything James produced. The melody on "Flutey" is classic Rephlex, but the track's staccato percussion and tense, rolling chords would make it sound at home on a fogged-out dance floor, maybe sandwiched between a couple of Kassem Mosse cuts. The acidic "Fingry," the bone-crunching "AFX Tribal Kik" and the stylus-destroying noise of "Cunt" could have been filched from a Ron Morelli record.
Even when the tempos rise or the arrangements grow more spastic, there's a directness to the material that makes you want to move. "Popeye" is about as pared-down as Aphex Twin's beat-driven material gets, but the bass squelches and destroyed cymbals slam in perfect synergy. It might be the most joyful 80 seconds of techno I've heard this year.
What Caustic Window lacks is a glorious ambient cut—the style in which James was most brilliant around the time this record was made. "101 Rainbows (Ambient Mix)" is the one beatless track, but it's also the record's only dull moment, with Eno keyboards and flanged cymbal accents that sound dated and unsubtle. In both volumes of Selected Ambient Works, though, we've got a lifetime of synthetic textures to lose ourselves in, and Caustic Window offers its own unique pleasures. If it's not a masterpiece, it's a worthy addition to the pantheon, and as intriguing an album as you're likely to hear this year, even without the irresistible backstory.
02. Stomper 101mod Detunekik
07. AFX Tribal Kik
09. Squidge In The Fridge
12. 101 Rainbows Ambient Mix
15. Phone Pranks