It’s going to seem like closet-clearing time with the release – limited though it was – of Caustic Window and now this: new Aphex Twin material. Richard D. James has been in a form of hiding for most of a decade, release-wise. There’s been music, performances, but he really slowed down. He probably spent some time with family. He certainly knows – and has played well – that old adage of needing to go away in order to (make a) comeback. And though Syro was built from (beats and) pieces over several years it has a greased and oily flow to it, it does feel like an album.
It would have been raved about – regardless. Mercurial forces are becoming rarer in music and Aphex represents a touchstone for so many types of slightly weird and often wonderful forms of DJ-music, electronica, anything with a crepuscular moodiness, everything with soul and heart and a human side that emanates from machines. But Syro is an easy listen and it glides and it contains beauty and gloss and it never feels like a too-perfect sheen and it never seems like just a cash-in and it never feels like any sort of obvious departure nor a too-similar trace-around of previous ideas.
I also get why someone might just feel a bit bored by this.
It’s funny to think of this – so many releases and several years into the Aphex career/canon – as being the perfect introduction, but that’s absolutely what it is. And though a certain type of fan will bemoan it not being nearly weird or wild enough and others will point to it having no single standout to rival early bangers (On), the ambient masterworks, the “crossover” singles (Come To Daddy, Windowlicker) or even the gentle moments of piano loveliness (Avril 14th) this does most closely resemble the Aphex of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and the certain moments within the last proper Aphex Twin studio release, 2001’s Drukqs. It’s almost as if ideas/ideals from those albums were blended.
What you will hear, almost instantly – in fact it’s right there on the opening track (minipops 67) is everything that Thom Yorke heard in Aphex Twin and channelled into Radiohead, the single most important influence on that band since they agreed to wag school and meet up for tape-swaps and back-shed jamming. And you’ll also hear that Richard D. James is a meticulous craftsman, a composer (XMAS-EVET10) – and that hip-hop has always been an influence (produk 29) at least as much as he was ever directly influencing it. You’ll hear the pop instincts that were sometimes buried – all but destroyed – by shrill folly and relentless drill’n’bass (4 bit 9d api+e+6) and you’ll read, as you are here, that he still has all the fun in the world naming his songs/complete disregard for conventional titles. They’re both irrelevant handles and they hint at the way these pieces of music can be viewed: as much equations or riddles as they ever could be tunes.
From hip-hop meets trance vamps (180db_) through midnight marauding (CIRCLONT6A), squelching drum’n’bass remnants where drum patterns sound – and seem – like maths problems (CIRCLONT14) through subverted – calming – jungle grooves (s950tx16wasr10) Aphex Twin has here (purpose-)built a career-sampler/overview, and then removed the bluntest edges, the jarring moments. Some of us will miss those jarring moments – but already know to look elsewhere, to dig back down into the back catalogue. Others will enjoy the easy flow of a nearly easy-listening Aphex Twin album.
The correct answer of course is that this is very nearly all things for all Aphex fans – most crucially it is a return. There have been plenty that have tried, but there’s no one like him. If you don’t feel a certain emotional pull from this then that’s fair enough – you can find that elsewhere – the only real reason to find disappointment here is in not hearing anything that sounds and seems forward-thinking, forward moving. This is Aphex playing catch-up with himself. But after a decade-long silence from anything resembling the mainstream we had to expect that. And grant that.
Syro doesn’t replace anything he’s done – just as no other release replaces anything else he’s done. Syro does return the name and brand to more than just a reference-point. And in the closing track, wistful, gentle (aisatsana) he comes pretty close to creating a new Avril 14th. Let’s hope Kanye never hears it. He wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway.
I still like that Richard D. James is making music-as-museum-piece, as art-installation, as suburban soundtrack for an after-hours stroll, as little swirls of carbonate colour. And Syro is welcome – though the real thrill from it was hearing that it was about to exist. Hopefully after an early gush and rush of comment – in months and years to come – it still will.