The enigmatic Aphex Twin reemerges after 13 years with Syro
There’s a moment that occurs around the three-minute mark of “XMAS_EVET10 (Thanaton3 Mix)”, the second track off the new Aphex Twin album Syro, where the shrapnel that’s been skittering around Richard D. James’ drum machine allows room for an airy, nostalgia-drenched synthesiser melody that’s so overwhelmingly beautiful you can’t do much but stop dead in your tracks and focus. On my first listen of Syro, the first album released under the moniker Aphex Twin in 13 years, it was the moment when it actually clicked: I’m listening to a new Aphex Twin album.
The crown-wearing, Jungian trickster of 90s dance music, whose work ranged from sublime ambient to bracing electronic experimentation, laid relatively dormant after the release of his divisive 2001 double-CD Drukqs, releasing only a series of EPs and full lengths under other, somewhat anonymous titles (see: The Tuss). As the years kicked on, the possibility, and even the idea, of a new Aphex Twin album seemed more and more unlikely, and yet, here we stand in the second half of 2014 with floating blimps, deep web declarations and Syro.
With the simmering pot of expectation almost bubbling over, the lurking question of whether James still had it was constantly whispered, with many fans wondering whether the record could even begin to contribute to one of music’s greatest legacies. And yet, like Aphex Twin’s uncanny ability to congeal textural moody soundscapes with spastic drum rhythms, it only takes a single listen of Syro for the record to congeal with the pleasure centre of your brain. Richard D. James is back, and he hasn’t missed a beat.
Apart from how effortlessly brilliant Syro is, there are probably two things you’ll immediately notice if you’re a fan of Aphex Twin’s previous work and have been following the album’s release pattern. The first is that Syro isn’t a large stylistic jump from much of James’ IDM/acid techno roots. The second is that there are a lot of people who find this lack of development unsatisfactory. The notion that people would be frustrated by little to no musical evolution is a fair one in some sense; in the 1990s the name Aphex Twin became synonymous with unpredictability, a quality that not only fit James’ genre attention deficit, but came to form the foundation of his output. Whether it was crafting primal, dirty jungle beats, transcendent neo-classical ambient pieces or pop infused electro-subversions, Aphex Twin never let his aesthetic take a breath, always pushing his unique approach to music and its construction into new and dangerous realms.
So it’s probably fair then that Syro, an album that sits squarely in James’ acid techno wheelhouse, would disappoint people, especially considering the 13 years these very same people have spent idly twiddling their thumbs in anticipation. What isn’t fair though is to let that pre-conceived disappointment overshadow the fact that Syro is some of the most impossibly jaw-dropping music that Aphex Twin has ever released, a collection of 12 tracks written over seven or so years that are as impeccably crafted, richly textural and effortlessly structured as any of James’ previous works in any of his chosen genre explorations. In fact, Syro is actually evidence of the timelessness of Aphex Twin’s music, a quality incredibly rare in the cloud-based, Bandcamp era of music consumption where one moment you’re hot and the next millisecond you’re not.
Each of the tracks contained on Syro might be determined by factors such as timestamps and studio set-ups but there’s something about the way in which each track could easily exist today or 20 years ago. It might have something to do with the way in which James actively avoids trends, or it might be his command over technology and sound design. More than anything though, it’s probably the fact that the music that spills forth from James’ fingers is some of the most unique the music world has ever witnessed. Syro seems like it could only come from a single source.
Even in the admittedly static virtues of the record, a point I obviously disregard as inherently negative, there are other qualities that combat such an opinion, although they do occur on a much smaller scale. Syro is a collection of tracks denoted by moments across approximately the last seven years. Each song here is a marker in Richard D. James’ personal growth if not his stylistic one, a fact that’s easily confirmed by the track titles themselves.
Looking like gibberish most of the time, the track titles are mostly coda for pieces of equipment that James used on Syro. Although they are clearly references and not perfect replicas of the hardware used (Korg’s Mini Pops drum machines appear as “minipops 67 (Source Field Mix)” for instance), the track titles are all seemingly memory indicators, pins on the travel map of James’ life, a timeline that has been a mystery to everyone except himself and his family. In fact, most of the vocal samples that appear on the record, as incomprehensible as they are, are either his wife and kids’ or his own, yet another element that demands Syro be considered in the personal over the public realm, a reflection that rarely came up with his previous works. Even the title Syro comes from a word his son made up. Seems like the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Looking over the actual track list though, it's difficult to come up with stand out tracks. The album’s closer “aisatsana ” is the only song that truly stands out, mostly because of its stark contrast to the rest of the album, being a sumptuous piano ballad that’s named for James’ wife. Sure, there’s the booty shaking, plastic dance floor anthem “180db_”, the Rubber Johnny-esque “CIRCLONT6A (Syrobonkus Mix)” and the Tangerine Dream bubble-synth sounds of “PAPAT4 (Pineal Mix)” that separate themselves from the pack, but only slightly so. The best part of Syro is the fact that everything here seems to come from a clean, sophisticated vision. There’s nothing truly remarkable about Syro except for the fact that each and every track, in and of itself, is remarkable. Always moving, always evolving, the music Aphex Twin lays down on Syro is equally as danceable as it is mind-fuckable. Everything here, bar the piano closer, bounces like a rubber ball off every wall, maintaining a structure so liquid in form that it could, and probably will, be studied for years to come. It’s restless and experimental, but it’s also approachable and kind of inviting; it’s a rare beast.
It’s a beautiful thing this Syro, not only because it signals the beginning of the next wave in the career of one of pop music’s most exciting architects, but also simply because the music contained within is, well, beautiful. Having had the record on constant rotation since purchasing the giant replica of a tax invoice that is the LP version, to call Syro 2014’s best record so far is the safest musical assumption I’ve made all year. Syro is the full stop on a long period of official silence. Let the second era of Richard D. James begin.