By now any Aphex Twin/electronic music fan knows the story Richard D. James’ shelved album – under his Caustic Window moniker – has been released via a Kickstarter campaign. So, for whatever reason, we still don’t know the real reason – this Caustic Window release was pulled right as it was about to be released, some 20 years ago. Earlier this year one of just a handful of test pressings made it online at a huge price – a Kickstarter campaign was started to buy that version and release it. All backers would get a copy and you can stream the album on YouTube – the music is now freely available.
It’s something of a holy grail for Aphex fans – and yet to hear it is nothing hugely remarkable. But the story sells it. And then add to the fact that it’s been a decade since there’s been anything from Aphex Twin in an obvious album-length format. Longer if you’re not counting the remix collection. And yet his name is checked constantly, the myth grows larger. He’s now a looming, towering presence and his absence is what’s allowing that to grow.
But the truly remarkable thing about Caustic Window – and about the Aphex ethos – is that you could believe this album was first invented for a 1994 world and you can believe it was only ever supposed to see light of day in 2014. In a genre of music that moves so fast it’s so easy to appear dated that’s no mean feat, it speaks volumes for the world Aphex Twin has created. And for how his reticence and reluctance is a big part of the controlling in and of that world.
So, to the music then, for a bit. It’s bubbly beats on the opening Flutey and across the slightly more skittish Stomper 101mod Detunkekik – and yes, we’re plunged, once again, into the world of meaningless/annoying Aphex song title. If anything the first half of the record plays out like a slightly more buzzed/tweaked version of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and some of the early Aphex singles; Mumbly could have bounced along with On, happily.
But where the ambient works in the Richard D James canon are almost at times somnambulant, they have a drift to them, an easy waft, the Caustic Window stuff is still edge-of-seat always, never quite the full drill’n’bass, but always heading there.
Towards the end things get silly with prank calls and goofing off, but on the way there we have derivations of and deviations from hip-hop (Fingertrips) and with tracks like Airflow and Jazzphase James was clearly having fun experimenting with ideas around creating a chilled-out banger; that sort of lunacy. Of course there’s loveliness here too, the digital glide of Squidge In The Fridge, the mood of Jazzphase, the way 101 Rainbows Ambient Mix is an entire Eno-like world or album condensed down to eight minutes – and then there are the ugly contrasts and counterpoints (Phalaps) just to remind you that the guy who put the lovely music on the turntable might also get up at any point and drag the needle back and forth to create an abrasive non-melody that he thinks is lovely – and only ever because he can.
But beyond being amazed at how timeless/bubble-like the Aphex world of music is – my best thought is that Richard D. James made every single piece of music he’s ever released and plenty that he hasn’t in one six-month sleep-deprived coke/Coke-fuelled “lost weekend” – it’s hard to really get a purchase on Caustic Window (if you’ll pardon the pun). It’s just the fact that it exists (once again – or now, and now forever/ish) that makes it interesting. That’s all. And once or twice in any lifetime there’s an artist that comes along where that – and that sort of story – is enough to keep you hooked on and occasionally tuned in.