IN THE 1990S, producers of IDMso-called intelligent dance musicfaithfully observed three unwritten rules. One: Stay anonymous, hiding your true name behind an arras of aliases. Two: Keep pushing the music into the future; nostalgists, stay away. Three: Never show your face. Time and again, Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin, broke these cardinal rules and many others besides. Despite or because of his intractability, he became an early poster boy for the new generation of bedroom producers. His music, forged in the afterburn of late-’80s underground rave culture, heralded an altogether new form of home-headphone psychedelia. Its intensely calculated spatial abandon led James’s influential record label Warp to dub a series of albums in this style Artificial Intelligence.
As overexposed and fan-worshipped as he was, Aphex Twin frustrated journalists: His tagline could have been “Subvertisements for myself.” He and his close comradesTom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher; Luke Vibert, aka Wagon Christ; and various mates on James’s own independent Rephlex labeldisdained media probing, countering earnest discourse with studied inarticulacy. At the same time, Aphex Twin’s visual identity metamorphosed from the enigmatic, depersonalized circular logo of his early efforts into ever more lurid Photoshopped distortions and multiplications of his own facial features, a tendency that reached its apotheosis in the Chris Cunningham–directed videos for “Come to Daddy” (1997) and “Windowlicker” (1999), where James’s moronic grin is multiplied, Being John Malkovich style, and pasted onto children and bootylicious female models.
That mischievousness with his own image continued in the publicity for the new album Syro; in addition to a promotional blimp absurdly emblazoned with Aphex Twin’s logo, the campaign featured a widely-circulated image of James’s face sliced horizontally and recombined into an alien gargoyle. As only the sixth Aphex Twin long player, and his first in thirteen years, Syro arrived freighted with more expectations than ever. And yet as James has freely admitted, these twelve tracks are not newrather, they are a compilation of material from the past decade or more. Like Prince, James has stockpiled a copious archive to be tapped at will. This approach disrupts conventional notions of linear artistic development, as well as electronica’s desperate quest for the cutting edge. Syro is a retro album, nostalgic for the lost sound worlds Aphex himself created in the days before electronic dance music (EDM) went mainstream, pushing his kind of groundbreaking electronica back into the shadows. For this reason, James’s music no longer has the power to terraform the landscape. Othersnot least some of his own Warp labelmateshave stretched electronic music’s envelope further, whether in the fields of digital disorientation (Autechre), uncanny post-ambient nightmares (Boards of Canada), or shock-and-awe progtronic onslaught (Hudson Mohawke).
Maybe that’s why, although the Aphex Twin of Syro has traveled a long way from the oneiric, particulate atmospherics of his breakthrough record, Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994), he hasn’t necessarily traveled into the future. Where that album was largely beatless, set adrift on waves of queasy static and hum, Syro is heavy on the rhythm, bubbling with synthetic percussion, rolling on hip-hop breakbeats and pummeling techno thumps, while each track title is a functional file name incorporating its own beats-per-minute count in brackets. “4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26],” for instance, has the clunky, Fairlight-sequenced stutter reminiscent of Phil Collins’s “Sussudio.” “PAPAT4 [pineal mix]” throws back to mid-’90s pirate radio and those heady days when everybody with an Atari and a cracked copy of Cubase could slice ’n’ dice the “Amen” break. “Aisatsana ,” a live recording of a robotic piano, dangling in midair during an orchestral performance of James’s work in London, recalls the Satie-esque piano interludes first aired on the bipolar 2001 album Drukqs.
The plangent melody of this last track is the most extreme manifestation of the distinct musical melancholia perceptible behind the sensuous chemistry of silicon surfaces. It’s there, also, in the wistful, rippling synths and disembodied voices of the opening tracks, “minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]” and “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix],” and the introspective minor-key mode of “CIRCLONT6A [141.98][syrobonkus mix].” Syro’s real pleasures lie in such emotive details, and they’re powerful and surprising enough to override any expectations of future shock. James has a track record of idiosyncratically incorporating other autobiographical elements into his music: locations from his childhood in Cornwall, anagrams of his name, singles titled after his asthma medication, his parents singing “Happy Birthday” on voice mail, even a song, “Milk Man,” expressing a rather puerile lactation fantasy. Most tellingly, the macabre sleeve of the Girl/Boy EP (1996) shows a photograph of a memorial to his brother, also called Richard James, who died stillborn three years before the present Richard arrived. This, then, lies at the root of James’s multiple aliases, his status as copy-and-pasted avatar. This Richard James was always already a duplicate from the moment he was born. But his music is a powerful assertion of self, a fallible presence singing from within the technological armature of a genre that prizes posthuman disembodiment. If the vocal excursion of “Milk Man” seemed eccentric at the time, there are voices scattered all over Syro: digitized, time-stretched, vocoded, eavesdropped, indecipherable. When these occur, it makes for something less than a song, but more than mere inchoate utterance. Behind the mask of anti-intellectual bravado and nerdy gear fetishism lurks a presence more human than posthuman, with a history and an identity that refuse to locate themselves entirely in the digital realm. At last, it seems, IDM has grown some emotional intelligence.
Rob Young is a writer, critic, and contributing editor of The Wire.