First, an introduction
What makes Aphex Twin, a.k.a. Richard D. James, stand out as one of the most important electronic music artists of all time? There is, after all, plenty of talent to go around in the Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) scene, including Autechre, Venetian Snares or Boards of Canada, to name a few. But how did Aphex Twin become a legend and major festival headliner material?
First, a bit of history. The IDM name was coined at least a decade before that other, now ubiquitous acronym (“EDM” or Electronic Dance Music), the latter of which has become the umbrella term for all things electronic and club-friendly. IDM could be considered EDM’s polar opposite: suitable for headphone listening, full of minuscule details, built on exploratory techniques and odd time signatures. I personally know a lot of math-rock, prog-rock and classical music nerds who enjoy IDM; their vinyl copy of Venetian Snares’ seminal Rossz Csillag Alatt Született carefully alphabetized next to their Van der Graaf Generator LPs.
And while Aphex Twin is certainly one of the pioneers of the genre, his take on IDM over the last 3 decades has often veered into more danceable territory, hence the other nickname used to describe his music, “braindance”. Whether it’s straight up four-to-the-floor hardcore (as heard on 1995’s Classics compilation), melodic drum’n’bass (“Meltphace 6”, off of 2001’s Drukqs) or midtempo acid house (2016’s Cheetah EP), Aphex Twin creates songs that are both challenging and fun – warehouse rave music made by a genius.
But another element that sets Aphex Twin’s music apart from his contemporaries is James’ talent for crafting indelible and haunting melodies. One of his most famous works, “Avril 14th”, is a piano solo composition that exists entirely outside of the IDM realm and stands on its own as a modern classical piece (and as the sampled backdrop for Kanye West’s “Blame Game”). Even famed composer Philip Glass deemed Aphex’s “Icct Hedral” worthy of a reimagining using a full orchestra and choir. James is both a technical and compositional master, which makes his music more palatable than a majority of his peers’. Because, to be frank, even as a fan of the genre, a lot of IDM can often feel like trying to enjoy a complex mathematical equation.
On a more surface level, Aphex Twin’s appeal also lies in the way his music has been presented to the public. He became notorious in the late ‘90s for his nightmare-inducing music videos, notably the ones directed by Chris Cunningham. These include the brutal, industrial-tinged “Come To Daddy” or the distressing “Windowlicker”, a grotesque R&B caricature featuring bikini-clad models whose faces morph into James’ bearded grin. And of course, there’s also the mystique around the man himself, who likes to give dubious answers during interviews, casually dropping tidbits about owning a military tank, living in a converted bank vault, being able to control his dreams, or possessing the rare talent of synaesthesia – a sensory condition where one can hear colour, see sound, etc. And the fact that James once took a 13-year career hiatus where he practically disappeared from public view – right before his excellent Syro comeback in 2014 – only made his legend grow further.
The COLLAPSE EP
And so the media rollout preceding Aphex Twin’s new Collapse EP was reliably intriguing, starting with a few trompe-l'œil posters in subway stations. Then came the cryptic press release, written in nonsense and featuring excellent passages such as “Aphex Twin has served as the god of electronic crocheted linen doilies” and “Collapse EP yeah? is a fun water gathering. Apex [sic] spread the twin tails and succeeded in his early car.” Well, can’t argue with that.
A few days later, a music video premiere on TV network Adult Swim was ultimately scrapped after the song’s visuals failed an epilepsy test for strobing effects, to nobody’s surprise. The mind-melding “T69 Collapse” video, directed by artist Weirdcore, ended up being posted online instead and served as an appetizer for the Collapse EP.
The track in question opens with a powerful syncopated percussive track that contrasts nicely with a gentle, intriguing melody. As the song keeps evolving, the accompanying video zips the viewer around in a virtual glitch town. Rich bass tones and woozy synth pads are introduced, accented by echoing rimshots that summon early Chicago house memories. We are now in familiar Aphex territory – a robust groove that is both beautiful and a tad worrisome. After a few minutes, the song suddenly screeches to a halt before doing a 180-degree turn: a jarring, awe-inducing percussive midsection takes center stage, one that stretches and compresses time while occasionally bashing your head in with flurries of hardcore kick drums. And it goes on for what seems like forever. Throughout all this, the visuals keep up with this madness, as weird graphical textures get mapped onto surreal, pulsating CGI landscapes. A picture of James’ own face gets horribly deformed in sync to the intricate drum patterns, and I’m instantly reminded me of Tetsuo’s ghastly fate near the ending of Akira. This is how an Aphex Twin video is supposed to feel.
The song re-enters our atmosphere in its last third with a melancholic finale. The rhythm and soft melody return for a relatively soothing ending to this audiovisual trip. Laser-like vectors flash across the screen against a dark background; a smiley face appears for a half-second, perhaps as a nod to acid rave nostalgia, and suddenly it’s all over. The aftershock is overwhelming, like surviving a nuclear explosion. Once again, this time with help from designer Weirdcore, James has created yet another perfect audiovisual one-two punch, as he did in the ‘90s.
But enough about the opening single – what about the rest of the EP? At five tracks (four on the vinyl version) and just under a half-hour, Collapse thankfully eschews the minute-long rap skit equivalents that encumbered Aphex’s recent EPs in favour of fully-fleshed songs.
The 2nd track, “1st 44”, is built on a sort of half-time, slow/fast groove reminiscent of American footwork, which isn’t all that surprising since James has been known to play some footwork tracks in his live sets. In particular, Midwestern producer Jlin’s polyrhythmic influence can be felt not only here, but across the rest of the EP. It’s interesting to hear Aphex Twin work at a slower tempo – the track manages to feel both busy and spacious at the same time, a welcome respite from some of his more frantic modes. “1st 44” also winks at mid-90s drum’n’bass with a few well-placed vocal adlibs, vintage bleeps and old-school crash cymbals, without going into pastiche territory.
The eerie, almost human-sounding synth that opens 3rd track “MT1 t29r2” is reminiscent of his seminal and often scary mid-‘90s period, and summons that familiar queasiness James is known for. The ensuing combination of stuttering beats and celestial melodies call to mind ex-labelmate Bogdan Raczynski’s best work, and the welcome addition of a warm bassline at the song’s midway point all make for an excellent track.
“Give me your hand, my friend, and I will lead you to the land of abundance, joy, and happiness”, goes as spoken female voice sample on the next song, “abundance10edit [2 R8’s, FZ20m & a 909]”. It’s pretty rare nowadays for Aphex Twin songs to contain actual, decipherable words. Any vocals on his recent albums are usually processed to the point where they become a sort of paste to be applied texturally on a track. But here, the sample is played straight. Later, however, the words “joy” and “happiness” are echoed, though this time modified to match the key of the melody. It’s a particularly affecting, human moment on the EP, especially in a genre that tends to lose itself in labyrinthine programming and technical flourishes. The track title’s mention of the pieces of equipment used – the Casio FZ20M, Roland TR-909 and R8, all released in the 1980’s – is interesting as well. For a record that sounds so state-of-the-art, it’s amazing to hear how James can somehow pull out modern sounds out of 30-year-old equipment and integrate them seamlessly to his contemporary productions. The lo-fi, crunchy handclaps are perhaps the song’s only giveaway.
As mentioned, the digital, CD and cassette versions of the EP contain “phtex”, a fifth bonus track driven by rolling drums and squiggly lines of acid synthesizer. Under the high-bpm chaos at the forefront, minor key synth pads swell and fade in the background, sometimes cutting on and off abruptly with audible clicks – it’s these deliberate imperfections that make Aphex Twin’s music so special. It already seems to be a fan favourite too, as online forum users are already bitching about the track’s absence on the vinyl version.
An overarching characteristic of this EP is the structural inventiveness of each piece. Aphex Twin makes every single song on Collapse unpredictable, either by dropping a radical tempo shift mid-song, or by introducing a major new element in the last half or third of a piece’s runtime. Each of these compositions feature movements that are different from one another while still sounding like they belong to the same song. You’d be hard-pressed to find a section that becomes overly repetitive – and this is great news for those who are adverse to one of electronic music’s most maddening tendencies. On a technical standpoint, it’s amazing to see how, 3 decades into his career, Richard D. James still finds a way to evolve with the times while retaining his signature sound and sense of adventure.
For neophytes, this EP can serve as a fine introduction to James’ work. Collapse simply has a ton to sift through, all in under a half-hour. It features many of Aphex Twin decades-old tropes – intricate percussion, haunting melodies, sheer unpredictability – while still having its feet firmly planted in today’s era. Highly recommended.