Few artists over the last few decades have as successfully thrived beneath various interfaces as Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin.
A composer and beat-music innovator whose way with intricate electronic-synthetic melody spawned entire instrumental subgenres, James has over two-plus decades constructed a veiled mythology around his artistic self involving truths, half-truths and outright lies.
Which is to say, if news were to break tomorrow that James, 43, were in fact the mysterious graffiti artist Banksy, or had pranked critics by hiring a bunch of hack imitators to create his new “Syro,” few could argue that signs pointing to such things weren’t in his past.
It’s an impressive, influential body of work. If German group Kraftwerk best illustrated the early potential of human-computer interaction in pop structures, James a decade-plus later harnessed faster processors to build -- and deconstruct -- wild synthetic sculptures. In classic works like “Analogue Bubblebath,” “Windowlicker,” “Flim” and “Nannou,” he delivered seamless electronic jams that highlighted a computer’s ability to erupt with super-fast drumrolls until they sounded like drills, or layer frantic multidimensional bass lines. His skill has been in presenting such chaos within pieces as perfectly imagined and structured as ball bearings.
His first new studio album in 13 years, “Syro” arrives after a period in which the artist and his wife raised kids and, if his interviews are to be believed, spent a pastoral life in the Scottish countryside. In the meantime, Aphex Twin's work influenced a generation.
Using James' ideas, artists as varied as Skrillex, Caribou, Kanye West and Grimes have furthered his endeavors. James told the writer Philip Sherburne in Pitchfork that "Syro" is but one strand of his unreleased work. Despite this, it teems with arguments in favor of James’ influential status while celebrating the warm, malleable tones of analog and electronic synthesizers.
“Syro” doesn’t have the back story of other long-delayed records like Guns N’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy” or Dr. Dre’s “Detox.” It’s not the product of writer’s block or label interference. However, James did reveal its pending arrival via a blimp that flew over London – even while downplaying “Syro” as any sort of definitive statement.
The song titles bear out this random-seeming anonymity. They include such computer-speak gibberish as “PAPAT4 [pineal mix],” “4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26]” and the evocatively titled “syro u473t8+e [141.98][piezoluminescence mix].” The other nine don’t make much sense either, and read like digital burps, sighs and whinnies from beyond the human realm.
The same can be said of much of “Syro,” whose tracks range in length from less than a minute to more than 10. The voices of James, his wife, children and parents are heard throughout, but they’re manipulated until they sound like ghosts, androids or android-ghosts.
The ninth track – again, a string of nonsensical gibberish as its title – opens with a woman speaking French. She’s soon swaddled in distorted funk tones suggestive of Prince – as seen through a shattered mirror.
The 11th track uses a stutter-step drum-and-bass rhythm of the late 1990s, and it’s unclear whether it's cheeky homage or merely a track pulled from James' “Come to Daddy” sessions. The humming, concisely titled “180db_ ” is a relentless drive of distorted synth clusters backed by a simple thumpy breakbeat. That beat’s appearance suggests work that may have been first imagined in the heady post-trip-hop days of the early ‘00s.
In fact, though these songs are often miraculous constructs – catchy but intricate, prone to strange melodic curlicues and rearrangements -- there is something quaint about the tones that James employs on much of “Syro.”
As if by stubbornly refusing to acknowledge many aural signifiers and non-Aphex EDM evolutions of the last decade, the artist has presented an utterly human, mostly nonverbal defense of his aesthetic: atmospheric, occasionally funky and meandering instrumental electronic tones, lovingly crafted, with imaginative internal logics.
Skeptical? Stop what you’re doing, grab your most expensive headphones and pop on “CIRCLONT6A [141.98][syrobonkus mix].” Filled with psychedelic synth tones of the highest order, it’s a work stacked with texture and complicated flow. It’s a shape-shifting labyrinth. In fact, like trying to describe the artist who made it, to untangle the track’s allure would only diminish its mystery.
3.5 stars out of 4
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit