Master Blaster

Sasha Frere-Jones on Aphex Twin’s show at Avant Gardner

Aphex Twin performing at Avant Gardner in Brooklyn, April 11, 2019. Photo: Philip Prolo.

WHEN APHEX TWIN played Brooklyn’s Avant Gardner earlier this month, it was his first New York appearance in at least twenty-two years. From day one, Richard D. James has used live appearances as DJing opportunities, focusing heavily on the ragey, detailed tracks he and his cohort favor. But these tracks are, and have always been, a fairly narrow tranche cut from his larger body of work. Don’t flip out if you miss his recent shows and are a lifelong fan of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)—that show can happen any time, in your house.

The sound was clear and not too loud. The big ass, windy industrial room was packed but nothing bad happened as a result of all those bodies being in one confined space. The dystopian credit card wristband actually worked. The performance itself was a millefoglie of sound and light, with a dozen digital screens, a clutch of lasers, and fifty-odd songs all trying to find purchase in your tiny and mortal mind. Some of the projected images were broad comic gags, such as the slideshow of New York celebrities compressed vertically. (No noses for Seinfeld.) The constant glitching and animated bikini babes felt like the work of a young edgelord who is deeply online, tagging the same image as both legendary and lol. The visual presentation was mostly an assault, white strobes and green lasers and hummingbird-level edits competing for your full distraction. One of the popular moves of the night was freezing a shot of a crowd member and then putting the image through a process that led to faces looking bloated and dissolved, perhaps as the result of some awful disease. Mostly the screen action just darkened the light of the music, which was uniformly aggressive.

The only dynamic variation came at the beginning and end of the sets. The first tracks—which many have ID’d as unreleased Aphex tracks—were traditional and squelchy. You can click and make that call yourself now, a fact which cannot be lost on James. However distanced I felt in the moment, I am completely engaged with these playlists and rough documents at home. I did not like hearing the rebarbative “Donor Trust” by Forces during the Aphex set while also having to look at rivers of abstracted lips but this is not the same thing as disliking it. I’m glad I learned about some thick and active music because James played it. But is that what I expected to enjoy about having gone to this show? And whose fault are expectations?

There are some odd but widely accepted rules of electronic music sets, which seem not so problematic at the level of show quality but are tricky at the level of expectations. (The Reddit thread “Why are people so mad at Aphex Twin rn?” addresses exactly these assumptions.) Simply put, electronic buddies can play material by anybody, at whim, without warning beforehand. Imagine if you bought a ticket to see Caetano Veloso and he played two songs on guitar you didn’t know, then busted out his laptop and clicked on three songs from Frank Ocean’s Blonde and a set of random R&B tracks. That’s what electronic acts do, routinely, and that is more or else what Aphex Twin did at Avant Gardner.

This can be a problem if you are expecting the styles Aphex Twin has become famous for mastering. He has basically one mode live, and that mode is quick and dense, related to dance music while often challenging the idea of dancing. The crowds at his European shows generally go bananas, while only about a hundred people out of several thousand at Avant Gardner were moving to the music. And that may have been the disjunct—if only one half of the audience-performer dyad thinks it’s time to rave, the whole thing gets caught in limbo. Or as my companion put it, “What about all the pretty stuff? I don’t need this Burning Man shit.” Sorry, friend.