Album Review: Aphex Twin – Syro

It’s difficult to tell how much of the hype around Richard David James’ first album in over in a decade is label-generated, and how much has been driven by the reclusive producer often regarded as one of the most influential figures in electronic music today.

A blimp bearing the Aphex Twin logo flying over East London, stencils on the streets of New York and the discovery of a breakdown of track names and image for Syro buried deep in the dark web bear the hallmarks of a clever marketing campaign by James’ label, Warp.

Earlier this year, a test pressing of an unreleased Aphex Twin double LP from 1994 sold for £43,000, to be shared with consortium of fans via eBay. Around the same time a rare 20 year-old video interview with James resurfaced, netting a few hundred thousand views online.

Whether or not these occurrences are connected to the release is irrelevant really; the music, produced by an artist who doesn’t own a mobile phone, lives in the Scottish countryside with his young family and gives very few interviews or indeed much away about his life and work at all, speaks for itself.

Critical analysis of Syro is, however, not an easy task; the cryptic tracklist made up of letters, symbols and references (all track titles contain their beats per minute) that probably only really mean something to their author require some deciphering alone.

But then James’ work has always been difficult to describe. Suspended in a sort of stasis, simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, the music of Aphex Twin is neither dated nor futuristic. It draws on the DNA of techno, hip hop, breakbeat, drone, acousmatic, ambient, jungle, house and glitch, yet shuns the structure and form of those genres.

Syro is no different. There is no break with convention, the only convention being there are none. Unsurprisingly, James has not made an accessible record, nor has he offered up a convenient flow or any solid reference points for listeners beyond those within his back catalogue.

Most of the tracks on Syro are mere pit-stops on a dizzying journey through the full spectrum of the sounds, samples, sequencers, drum machines, instruments and computers at James’ disposal: bouncing, rounded and liquid synth basslines, squelching and twisted bleeps, an array of percussive noises – oscillating, distorted and phased, tripping over and intertwining with each other resulting in a tangle of trippy, frenzied and mind-bending electronica.

Voices are present; we don’t know whose. Pushed through innumerable filters, gates and effects, their inclusion on Minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix], XMAS_EVET10 [120] thanaton3 mix], CIRCLONTA6A [141.98][syrobonkus mix] and Fz pseudotimestretch+e+3 [138.85] help offset this frantic sprint through eerie and shape-shifting digital soundscapes.

Where the solid 4/4 beat underpinning sinister standout track 180db_ [130] is a relief to hear, CIRCLONTA14 [152.97]shrymoming mix] and PAPAT4 [155][pineal mix] charts destruction by major sonic assault, vaulting from buzzed synths and crazed broken beats to manic jungle-driven arpeggios, James’ bootmarks all over the wildly explorative drum patterns, loops and percussion.

Listening to the soothing beauty and serenity of final track Aisatsana [102], it’s hard to believe that the schizophrenia of the previous eleven tracks even existed at all; memories supressed by an exquisite five and a half minute pairing of piano and field recordings.

Richard D. James has released close to fifty records under the moniker Aphex Twin, AFX and others; his first for at least 10 years sets him apart in a class of his own for at least another decade to come. An incredible record.

4/5

 Syro is out now via Warp. Buy it here.

syro

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