- "Everyone knows about everything," Richard D. James told Philip Sherburne in an interview published on Pitchfork last week. "The holy grail for a music fan, I think, is to hear music from another planet, which has not been influenced by us whatsoever." James doesn't come from another planet—his productions take in techno, UK rave, avant-garde classical, jazz, prog rock, pop and plenty else besides. But for over two decades, Aphex Twin has brought us about as close to music outside of music as we can hope to get, and it's indeed made him a revered figure to fans of all stripes. There's the old adage that feigning disinterest is the surest path to irresistibility, but I don't buy that James's squirrelly persona—his hermit-like, semi-anonymous existence, his gruff interview technique, his stanched flow of Aphex Twin material since 2001's near-inscrutable double album Drukqs—is at the heart of his appeal. I think it comes from the pleasure of hearing an artist who, while musically coherent and imminently appealing, is truly experimental—a figure distinct from scenes and trends. If you happen to hear something familiar in James's music, it's like hearing it for the first time.
Aphex Twin's return, Syro, bears a 2014 release date, and it might end up as the year's best album. But that feels entirely incidental—it sounds like nothing else this year, or the year before, or the year before that one. Nor does it fit into any recent musical development beyond an incidental affinity with the resurgence of analog hardware amongst electronic producers. Quite a lot has happened in dance music since Drukqs, and this album is wholly ignorant of it all. In its quirky, globe-spanning promotional rollout, comeback-ish aura and heightened disregard for the music around it, I'm tempted to draw a parallel with Daft Punk's Random Access Memories. But where that blockbuster looked backward, Syro looks in no obvious direction. And it could only be James's work, even if it doesn't quite feel like he just whipped together another AFX record, either. That's probably because it's not how, or likely why, this album came together.
"How" is relatively easy to sort out. James has said in interviews that Syro was recorded over a number of years in an assortment of "studios" (this is how he's been describing his various production setups, which, from the looks of it, are probably extensive enough to warrant the plural). This is less evidenced by wild stylistic diversity than the out-in-the-woodshed quality of the productions. Syro is freewheeling and playful, but its every warbled note and compositional hard-left betray consideration and technical expertise that didn't come overnight. In terms of impressive twists and turns, they're myriad. Tracks morph, pressurize and reorganize—but never break down, exactly—following a completely unpredictable if utterly natural logic. "CIRCLONT14 (shrymoming mix)" is one of the most striking instances of this. It begins with the instrument lineup of a brittle acid track save live-sounding drums, which vamp like they've been plucked from a sold-out Wembley Stadium gig. As quickly as it builds, it stumbles—the squelching bass folds in on itself, and the drums trade the gallup for an awkward but perfectly timed skip. James strips back the arrangement to a thin pad playing a nervous cluster of notes, then blasts it off with a synthy squeal. Despite the rising lead, the track's melodic undercurrent mournfully moves down the scale. As the two lines merge, the machines playing them detune, and the progression falls apart in a series of tumbles that impart exhilaration and twinges of sadness in equal measure. I've listened to the cut dozens of times, and there are still sections that surprise me, that I can't believe I've heard before though I'm positive I have.
James sells these diversions with the sort of charm live performers might deploy, which is no small feat when working with an army of machines sequenced and slaved to one another. And what strange bands he assembles: "XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix)" employs, at various junctures, an out-of-tune piano, wind chimes, tablas, harpsichord, a tangle of simultaneous basslines and a small chorus of computer-garbled backup singers—every sound is at least a little synthetic, but none factory-fresh. Syro has moments where it sounds stuffed, but more often than not, James is working with small ensembles. The lounge-y hip-hop shuffle of "produk 29" isn't carried by much more than a reverb-drenched drum kit, fluid bassline and heavy synths tweaked into string ensembles; the record's end point, the sighing "aisatsana," features just closely mic'd piano, tape hiss and birds chirping. Aphex Twin arrangements have long let elements trade off the lead as they might in a jazz ensemble, and that happens to especially devastating effect on this record. James's instruments have never been so impeccably tweaked. On "4 bit 9d api+e+6," the lead gets passed between a typically wiggly bassline and juicy synths, all while rhythms built from an endless arsenal of drums form perfect, fleeting accompaniments around them.
I have no doubt that James has given us an outstanding work of electronic music—a standout record in an already peerless discography. (Even a relatively minor Richard D. James offering, like the Caustic Window album unearthed earlier this year, warrants all the time you can devote to it.) A record so immune to contemporary styles and aesthetics is almost by definition timeless, and it's tempting to call Syro that. But can music be transcendent by default? I take James for his word when he said in recent interviews that new Aphex Twin music is coming out now simply because it finally felt ready for the world—not the world feeling ready for the material—and I take a certain kind of comfort in that. The deeper I sink into this record the less I'm concerned about its place, and the more I want to turn off and be at one with the weird sounds combining around me.
01. minipops 67 (source field mix)
02. XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix)
03. produk 29
04. 4 bit 9d api+e+6
06. CIRCLONT6A (syrobonkus mix)
07. fz pseudotimestretch+e+3
08. CIRCLONT14 (shrymoming mix)
09. syro u473t8+e (piezoluminescence mix)
10. PAPAT4 (pineal mix)
11. s950tx16wasr10 (earth portal mix)