If Richard James demonstrates any aptitude for subtlety at all, it has eluded me completely. One minute, he’s flying a curiously branded hot air balloon over London with no explanation; the next, he’s releasing albums called Selected Ambient Works and Digeridoo, titles so bland and explicit, they belong in a library basement. Fan or not—because God knows you’re either one or the other—you have to admit that this is an exhaustive approach.
Still, exhaustive doesn’t necessarily mean ill-advised. Aphex Twin has spent the past two decades at the mercy of hundreds of adjectives, but “boring,” has never been one of them. James is a corrosive fellow, one who champions the offensive against an opponent who surrendered hours ago. If he quits, he quits on his own terms. Until then, expect a barrage of sonic volatility wound so tightly, it feels radioactive.
That might explain why James’ magnificent 2014 LP Syro didn’t really seem to surprise anyone, despite all the reasons why it should have. Sure, it was his first LP in 13 years, and of course it exposed a newer, more tempered side of Aphex Twin. But if the whole world sees you as a visionary, don’t expect them to freak when you drop an out-of-nowhere LP after more than a decade of radio silence.
Instead, expect the world to assume that your next release won’t take another 13 years.
That’s where we are currently. Earlier in 2015, James dropped Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments, Pt. 2, yet another spectacular concept release bearing a title his creative department no-doubt worked overtime to solidify. Acoustic Instruments, much like a handful of tracks on Drukqs and SAW, opts out of the more holistic sonic experience and instead focuses its attention on the specifics.
That’s important to remember. Acoustic Instruments is not for the first- or second-time Aphex Twin listener. It’s barely for those fans who have yet to make a run through the first three albums in James’ canon. Tracks range from 20-second-long snare drum oscillations to five-minute-long multi-layered electronic deep dives that don’t really go anywhere. In fact, almost all of Acoustic Instruments could represent a purposefully deconstructed version of any other Aphex Twin album to date. If you’re expecting a follow-up to Syro, you came to the wrong place.
However, if you’re accustomed to this weird, reductive game that James has been known to play, Acoustic Instruments might have just become one of your favorite albums of the year. Here we witness Richard James paying homage to even the slightest intricacies of his craft by shining the spotlight on a handful of the more significant ones, even if the spotlight only stays lit for 20 seconds. It doesn’t really ever feel whole, partly because it isn’t supposed to. It’s a spectacular archive of original sound produced by a figure who owes as much to the singular strokes as he does to the entire sketch. B
By this point, it’s hard to tell whether any album in the Aphex Twin catalog is appropriately named. What does Syro actually mean? If there’s a Computer Controlled Acoustic Works Pt. 2, where the hell is Pt. 1? What are Drukqs, and where might I purchase some? How selective was Aphex Twin in the selection of Selective Ambient Works?
Since we’re talking about Richard James, we run a real risk of never knowing the answer to any of these. He owes no one an explanation, which means we’ll probably never get one.
But by the same token, who cares? Deciphering the meaning of an Aphex Twin album name has never led to a deeper appreciation of an Aphex Twin album. Figuring out what “syro” means can’t make Syro any better than it already is, just like figuring out what a “drukq” is can’t make Drukqs any worse. What we do know, however, is that Orphaned Deejay Selek 2006-2008, James’ most recent offering, is a heavy-hitting, beautifully arranged EP that might or might not have been recorded between 2006 and 2008. Again: No way to tell.
Let’s instead focus on the things we do know. First, Orphaned starts at a sprint. Album openers “serge fenix Rendered 2,” and “dmx acid test,” boast a dynamic BPM that allows one track to bleed into the other with little-to-no resistance. Every element of each track is tight and fully formed, demonstrating his affinity for precision and depth at (almost) the same time.
James has always dog-eared his own work as a promise to revisit it at some point in the future. “simple slamming b 2”, for example, is a fully formed continuation of ahead-of-their-time explorations like “Start As You Mean To Go On”, one of I Care Because You Do’s more prolific moments. Meanwhile, “midi pipe1c sds3time cube/klonedrm”, feels like an anesthetized follow-up to Richard D. James Album’s phenomenal “Cornish Acid”. The similarities abound on Orphaned, which makes appreciating it seem like something you’ve already done once.
Nothing, however, goes down quite as easy as “bonus EMT beats”, a smooth, unencumbered jam eclipsing six minutes in length. Here, James exploits his appreciation for layered synth and guttural bass lines that, together, give the entire album a heartbeat that listeners can monitor without running the risk of a panic attack. James’ commitment to rounding the edges has never sounded so precise or purposeful.
As a matter of fact, “purposeful,” is a perfect way to describe all of Orphaned Deejay Selek 2006-2008. The entire thing feels deliberate and meaningful, especially given that the EP is the third in a series of offerings Aphex Twin has released in the past calendar year. If 2014’s commanding comeback Syro positioned James as a guy who spent 13 years shoving tricks up his sleeve, Orphaned Deejay Selek demonstrates just how long his arms are. Here’s hoping he hasn’t exhausted his resources, though I think we already know the answer to that. B PLUS