I first heard Cheetah at this year’s NAMM convention in Nashville. I hadn’t seen the announcement of a “product demonstration” on Aphex Twin’s social media accounts beforehand, so I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the booth at first. Tucked away into the back corner of the convention center, Warp’s little island of visual sterility clashed with the loud, in-your-face product displays and demos surrounding it. The cover of the EP comprised most of the booth decoration, sharing its space with a Cheetah synthesizer in a clear plastic case, a photocopied instruction manual, and an unassuming sound system with a few pairs of headphones attached. At the invitation of the representative, I put one of the pairs on. I stayed there for the next hour. Even if I hadn’t thought the EP was great (which I did, if you aren’t the sort of person to check the score before scrolling back up and reading the review), it feels pretty sweet to be on the cutting edge of something.
The simplicity of the cover and presentation (the minimalistic marketing acts as if the EP is its own piece of audio equipment) carries over into the actual music on Cheetah, which stands as Aphex Twin’s most accessible release since Richard D. James Album in 1996. The melodies are mostly pleasant ones, the sort you get stuck in your head two days later, making you irrationally angry because you don’t have the luxury of Googling the lyrics to help identify the song. Of particular note is “CIRKLON 1”, which layers its tracks to create what I can only describe as 80s cop show vibe, the staccato notes of the main synth line expertly complemented by bursts of bass and elongated background notes. He makes it sound effortless, but it takes a special talent to pull off this type of electronic wizardry with such ease. The beats are more palatably prominent, too, to the point that they’re often a bit too loud in the mix. The one exception is “CIRKLON3 [Колхозная mix]” (titles like these make me pine for the days of “4” and “Xtal” and “Kladfvgbung Micshk”…okay, maybe not that last one), a track that cleverly gives the backing beats their own distinct melody; its rhythmic bleeps and bloops end up being just as interesting as the warbling synths that take over the track’s latter half.
It may be the hardware’s doing—Richard D. James apparently composed the whole thing on the rare and notoriously overcomplicated Cheetah synthesizer—but the new EP has a warmer and more precise sound than 2014’s Syro. The synths never grate like on some of his more experimental releases, “CHEETA1B ms800” and “CHEETA2 ms80 0” notwithstanding—those two tracks serve more as an intro to “CIRKLON3 [Колхозная mix]” than anything, with the latter providing welcome relief from their overpoweringly high frequencies and underdeveloped drones. There’s also a heavier emphasis on progression than on any of his earlier releases, similar to what we heard on “Minipops 67” from Syro, but spanning the whole record instead of staying confined to one track. The tracks aren’t divided into specific sections, but their elements come and go so gradually that you’ll reach the end of a track and only then realize that you’re essentially listening to a completely different song than you were mere minutes ago. I realize that this same fact could be used to deride the EP as generic, and it’s true that this is one of those releases that precariously treads the line between “consistent” and “repetitive”. But there are enough little touches that save it from the dangerous trap of monotony. The contrasting simple and complex melodies panned to opposite sides of the mix in the middle of “CheetahT7b” are a notable diversion, as are the flanged percussion bits that pop up periodically on “2X202-ST5”.
Let’s be real here: Richard D. James is a genius, and just about everyone knows it at this point. I don’t think anyone was expecting Cheetah to change the game for electronic music, and considering the number of times Aphex Twin albums have already done so, I think it’s fair to give him a break. Keeping that in mind, Cheetah is still his best release since his return to the music scene. If you’re looking for something groundbreaking, you’re probably going to be disappointed, but this is still one of 2016’s best electronic releases, and a worthy addition to the Aphex Twin canon. B PLUS