Review: Aphex Twin, SYRO

After over a decade of silence, Aphex Twin returns in stunning form.
aphex twin syro cover art

opinion byAUSTIN REED

Here’s a stat that melts my brain every time I think about it: I Care Because You Do and Richard D. James Album came out in 1995 and 1996, respectively. To label Aphex Twin as one of the most ostensibly progressive musical acts of the mid-90’s would be to assume that more progressive musical acts have come after him and have contributed as much or more to their genre as James did to his. And that assumption would be grossly incorrect. At their cores, I Care and Richard D. James hold up today as two of the most incontrovertibly high-water marks within the realm of electronic music–to say nothing of the monumental Select Ambient Works volumes that preceded them–and I don’t imagine that their level of importance will shift anytime soon.

Rightfully so, because practically all of James’ music was from another fucking dimension. I vividly remember hearing “Windowlicker,” for the first time and wondering if the song was even real. It resembled nothing I had ever heard before—I spent my formative years taking drum lessons from the Grand Ole Opry’s house percussionist, so the kind of rhythmic approach James employed here was the most intriguing thing I had ever heard. It made perfect sense in a way that nothing before it even possibly could have. But by that same token, it was also kind of scary. Ninety seconds into “Digeridoo,” and I was sweating. Music of this BPM made my heart race, and the actual sound of a digeridoo in the background did nothing to curtail my anxiety. This was my first taste of techno, and techno was horrifying.

Acclaim of this magnitude rarely comes without some sort of emotional blowback. As to be expected, James was a media nightmare; in an exclusive interview, Pitchfork’s Philip Sherburne cites several instances over the course of the past two decades where James disavowed his fanbase, mocked his own writing process and diminished his definition of completion. This, unfortunately, was par for the course—at one point, you couldn’t talk about one without talking about the other. The masterfully composed music and the brutishly evasive persona existed on the same plane of conversational importance.

Of course, staunch devotees of James never cared—it might have been electronic music’s very first inside joke—nor did they ever assume his behavior would change. Even when James disappeared after 2001’s 30-track LP Drukqs, no one could really claim they were shocked. Saddened and disheartened? Maybe. But considering the source, this was a pretty standard weekday.

Which is why earlier this year, when James decided to release the thought-to-be-lost Caustic Window LP (under the Caustic Window moniker, no less) by way of a Kickstarter campaign, several heads turned. And then this happenedAnd then this. So by late August, it was obvious that we weren’t too far away from a new era of Aphex Twin. The implications of this new era, however, weren’t so obvious.

Sometimes I look back and regret feeling hesitant.

In practically every conceivable way, Syro is a marvel; James has never sounded tighter as a musician or more comfortable as a technician. Syro possesses all the same bite associated with his earlier work, but he harnesses the sting and showcases an altogether more soothing, ambient motif. Tracks like album opener “Minipops 67 (Source Field Mix),” convey similar preliminary emotion to “Digeridoo,” but next-to none of the brazen sonic shards that explode out of it. Instead, rock-solid break-beats and an indistinguishable vocal sample play out with calm promise, setting a smooth, unhurried bar for the remainder of the record.

“XMAS_EVET10 (Thanaton3 Mix),” is a lush, dreamy ten-and-a-half minute deep dive into some of James’ more emotional idiosyncrasies. It’s also a chance to prove he’s lost none of his footing in the rhythmic-creativity department, incorporating extensive high-register syncopation and fortified bass drops around every corner.

“PAPAT4 (Pineal Mix),” is a heady little vision quest of a track, blending a shifty dubstep foundation with a pacifying synth melody. James’ use of melodic bass wobbles and depth-defining elemental drops make “PAPAT4 (Pineal Mix),” one of the more enjoyable tracks on Syro.

What noticeable risks James does take are most apparent on “CIRCLONT6A (Syrobonkus Mix),” an exercise in quantifying just exactly how much detail you can cram into one track before it loses its form. A slightly higher BPM pairs with probably three-dozen additional track samples that amount to a song only as cohesive as a stick of chewed bubble gum laced with paper clips and rubber bands could possibly be.

But you know it’s an Aphex Twin record when you hear a track as volatile as “CIRCLONT6A (Syrobonkus Mix),” and it’s still only the second-most arresting song on the album.

“Aisatsana,” is a breathtaking, completely flawless feat of emotion, musicianship and engineering. It’s the only truly surprising moment on Syro, given its minimalism and its unwavering focus by comparison. Thusly, it’s the album’s strongest and most impactful moment. An anagram for and a lover letter to James’ wife Anastasia, “Aisatsana,” floats and resonates like no other track on the album, and it imprints itself like no other track in James’ entire portfolio.

For the past 20 years, James has made a life out of composing the kind of shocking, jarring, often discomfiting music that exudes myriad emotions at full-power. But Syro demonstrates something never before seen on an Aphex Twin record: temperance. Richard D. James has successfully crafted one of the most stunning records of his career, and he did so by exercising a deft amount of self-control. With this shiny new weapon at his disposal, it would be a waste if he decided not to capitalize on it. I certainly hope this isn't the last we hear of Aphex Twin, but James has always been a little too self-aware for that to be a real possibility.