October 23, 2001

Thirty tracks of acid

Richard D. James is the popular and acclaimed mad genius of electronic music. He drives a tank, turns down production and remix jobs for Madonna, lives in a bank vault, spins sandpaper discs at parties (to critical acclaim, no less); regardless of the media exposure, the music of the Aphex Twin remains interesting.

Warp Record's classic Artificial Intelligence compilation of “electronic listening music" gave the world Aphex Twin, along with Autechre, the Black Dog, and the Orb: artists making techno that was equally suited to dancing and listening. Later, Boards of Canada, µ-Ziq, and Jega helped make the genre big enough to deserve its own slot in the record store shelves. “Intelligent Dance Music," or IDM, really isn't the best name for it — look no further than the last Aphex singles, “Windowlicker" and the glue-damaged Come to Daddy, for examples of IDM that is neither intelligent (in the case of the latter) nor danceable (the former) — but it works, and in the case of the double-disc Drukqs, it might actually be appropriate.

Drukqs is the first Aphex Twin album to come out in five years. Many of the 30 tracks on Drukqs retain the Richard D. James Album's deliriously warped take on the fast-drums/slow bass of jungle, but they complicate the formula, with noisier, fiercer beats under a delicate, somber threnody. The rest of the album doesn't sound electronic (the cover art is the biggest hint), with piano all over the place — solo interludes reminiscent of Eric Satie and Claude Debussy, piano alongside paranoid beats, music-box ballerina player-piano — along with gamelan, pipe organ, bells, and sonic freak-outs. Richard's parents singing “Happy Birthday" on the Ansaphone even finds its way onto the album. This is to say nothing of the song titles, which range from French to vague Bahasa Indonesian, to looking like some infant's random stabs at a typewriter.

It becomes a cliché to say that with this new album, RDJ has gone crazy. Drukqs is not that easy. It is a beautiful album, but just what is going on is not immediately clear, especially if it's as significant as it seems.

The first disc starts with the wintry, peaceful melodies and intermeshed polyrhythms of “Jynweythek Ylow," the first of several tracks throughout the album to feature the sublime gong-chime sounds of the Indonesian gamelan. The titles (like “Hy A Scullyas Lyf A Dhagrow," “Beskhu3epnm," “Ruglen holon") don't do justice to the songs, which have all of the delicate, calming beauty of James's 1994 Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II but aren't nearly as hypnogogic.

The next track is the first of many to do the opposite of inducing sleep. “Vordhosbn" is actually one of the subtler of the bunch, rolling through cut-'n-click noise rhythms, little bits of pretty synthesizers, and some 808 bass. After the more somber gamelan sounds of “Kladfvgbung Micshk," “Omgyija switch7" raises the tempo with whip-cracks, noise, sampled voices, and bubbly synths that shift and mutate to an inevitable collapse.

Melodic motifs appear in the short, morose “Strotha Tynhe," a watery, echoic piano dirge that segues into the paranoid “Gwely Mernans," with the same piano sound over a pulsing, tell-tale-heart beat. “Bbydhyonchord" pleasantly raises the mood with a nice mellow Latin handclap-cowbell-meets-electro-lounge feel.

Before things get too relaxed, the twitchy “cock-ver10" reminds you just who is making this music. “Come on you cunt let's have some Aphex acid" stickers have been plastered all over London tube stations, and with good reason: after all the songs that sound so totally unfamiliar, this one goes and fulfills all your expectations about the sequenced sounds of crazy old Richard D. James. Delicate melodies and frenzied, jungle-derived percussion dance around at a party with Tenuate in the punchbowl, James barks the stickered epithet, and the homemade, abrasive, prickly trademark Aphex synth sounds respond. More high-BPM sonic chaos ensues.

It ends well before things get out of hand though, and “Avril 14th" returns to solo piano. The instrumental timbre itself isn't as echoic and processed as in previous tracks. It sounds like someone's tickling the ivories and it feels very real — you can hear the pedals, even the sound of worn, communal piano keys chafing against one another. In fact, it seems like this is just a recording of someone playing a Satie piece, and you can tell they've practiced and practiced because they're getting through it alright, but there's a kind of stiffness to the dynamics, so maybe they're nervous and tense and sitting up way too straight…. The human personality here is interesting, if only as an interlude between two very obviously sequenced songs.

In the eight-minute “Mt Saint Michel mix St Michael," things start with blippy, fuzzy melodies stuttering over all sorts of manic breaks and beats; jungle breaks, early Juan Atkins-style techno fills, and slow 808 rolls straight out of Miami booty bass all find a place next to crazy old Aphex percussion. Later, in one of the album's truly beautiful moments, a young girl's voice warbles the melody over buzzy, low-pH synths and blip-hop beats before everything skips into oblivion, the whole track becoming a sequenced sound in itself.

The second disc works with the same varied blend of ingredients as the first, but voices are more frequent. In “Meltphace 6," buzzing synths and lanky drums bounce around samples of the voices from Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II. “Bit4" is some picture-to-sound-via-inverse-FFT silliness; it's just a synth whine that makes a picture if you display it on an oscilloscope. “Taking Control" features Macintosh voices declaring, “I'm taking control of the drum machine" over 808 rolls, cowbells, and the voice of Richard's mum. The excellent “Ziggomatic v17" whizzes between ambient and jungle to a flood of effervescent synthesizers and a cute computer voice that closes the curtain with “Thank you for your attention. Bye."

Elsewhere, on “Lornaderek," little Richie's parents sing him “Happy Birthday" for the 28th time. The parents' voices are nothing new, and mum's voice has been manipulated before, but it's weird. The first syllable of her birthday wish is looped into a brief, taunting laugh. It's warm and delightful and personal and also just a bit creepy — no different than a parent's love. Right after, “Plenty Harmonium" treats the ears to a charming minute-and-a-half worth of pedal organ, and it is just like an organic, human, personal performance.

The album closes with solo piano in the form of the sublime “Nanou2." I must say that I have never heard anything as perfectly suited to free-floating misery. It is deeply moving but not gooey or contrived, melancholy without being melodramatic. This is the kind of music you could play when you've been told you have a horrible disease. In fact, it is just so off-the-charts sad and beautiful — it stands out like a sore thumb — that there must be some reason for it being there.

One Very Important Thought

The piano interludes, gamelan, and organ music sound the least like any Aphex Twin track ever because it sounds like someone actually played them — in real life, without a computer. And it feels legitimate. In “Plenty Harmonium," the reverberations of a large room and the sounds of the footpedals contribute to the real-life texture of the piece. It progresses through beautiful melodies with note-perfect accuracy, but its lack of confidence gives it a charming fragility.

To play some of the interludes probably wouldn't take much practice at all. But if there were ever someone with the talent and lunatic drive to spend the time programming the nuances of a human performance (especially an amateur sounding one) into a computer sequencer, it would be Aphex Twin, if only for the headfuck. So, did the Twin just play “Nanou2" and record it, or were the sounds sampled and layered and sequenced up in ProTools? Is Richard James really just a rank amateur on a piano, incompetent in real musicianship, who compensates for a lack of true human skills with hours in front of a cold computer screen as Aphex Twin?

The stubborn criticism of dance music artists is their lack of traditional musicianship, and the music's lack of a human feel. Sure, dance music has its indisputable beats, but it's all from a computer, it's not “real music" by “real musicians." With “Nanou2," James vivisects that whole argument because you just can't tell if they're programmed or played, and more importantly, it doesn't matter.

With Drukqs, James establishes himself as both a sensual percussionist and a percussive sensualist. On “Plenty Harmonium," the sixth-grade-piano-recital feeling is persistent. Songs like “Avril 14th" and even “Jynweythek Ylow" are drenched in personality. “Nanou2" is beautiful, and this is a beautiful, important album.