Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)



What makes this quietly intense, near-revolutionary seventy-five minutes of music so transcendent and engaging is how carefully it treads the ghostly line between the organic and the technological -- those frayed sounds of a decaying tape, actually an accident with the source material for all existing editions of the record, are the evocative aural singing, the tears on the wallpaper, that drift smokily above its sparse existence as just a guy, some keyboards and some software, alone in a room. Selected Ambient Works depicts an immaculately crafted, arid environment that's been unmistakably lived-in; Brian Eno's airport, in other words, is open for business. Kids kick the walls. Someone let a cat inside.

Not so long ago, I associated Richard James' Aphex Twin project mostly with a lot of late '90s music videos I know I'm supposed to find jaw-dropping and never really did. But an investigation of his early ambient work has not only left me with considerable admiration for his sonic and rhythmic gifts but has given me my current favorite disc to waft through the room quietly while I watch a silent movie. It doesn't "fit" the way a score would, but like Eno's Discrete Music, it's universally adaptable -- it's good for cooking, too. I can't think of a higher compliment (or a more un-rock & roll virtue) than this: Aphex Twin has, for the last month or so, Enhanced My Lifestyle. (!) Of course for some people, "dinner music" isn't a compliment. Maybe "dinner music with tension" is.

As modest as its origins may be, James' work here is genuinely resourceful and innovative -- and the results are expansive, even haunting. The grit and amateurishness of it all add to the mystery. If there's a calming spirit to it all, it's the sort of calm you force over yourself as an outlet from duress. That's why when you note that the music seems to come from far away (a less lofty and silly proclamation than it sounds like), it's a high compliment: its stuck-in-time eeriness ("Schottkey 7th Path") is downright therapeutic.

But it's also pop music. No, no, hear me out. Beyond how distinctive its various pulsations and wandered-off structures become even after just a couple of listens (the "now you're playing Simon" on the abrasive and fussy "Green Calx," the BBC science-documentary curiosities of "Ptolemy," the twenty-year jump on Kanye West's Roald Dahl interpolation), how familiar and quite comforting they are after a few more, James' sense of playfulness and subservience to beauty in songform and soundform are just a stripping down of what constitutes great pop. "Pulsewidth," for example, is a song, and after you've heard it a few times you'll be hard pressed to think otherwise. This is a different beast, then, from most ambient music that preceded it -- "Tha" might step into a void of gorgeous nothing, but it doesn't meander there long.

I tend to love the Muzak makers myself, and I love zoning out in this manner, so for me the expansive, lengthy cuts are best, and it's here that James most actively explores atypical, alluring rhythms. But this is an eclectic album and there's something here for everyone. How great it is to say that about an unadorned collection of synthesizer pieces and starkly dressed-up beats.

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