Richard D James’s influence on modern electronic music is undeniable. Throughout the 1990s, the Irish-born producer pioneered a singular form of experimental composition, joining the dots between jungle, acid house, techno, pop, classical and ambient. His work as Aphex Twin seemed driven by a crazed momentum, continuously evolving, destroying and rebuilding, confounding expectations in pursuit of the new. In 2001 came Drukqs, a polarising double album of warring personae; where onslaughts of near impenetrable fragmented techno would suddenly give way to delicate, solo piano pieces. As playful as it was unsettling, it seemed to be James’s way of confronting the split personality that lay at the heart of Aphex Twin: ambient calm and frenetic intensity. And then it stopped.
“James tries out every trick in his mesmerist’s magic box.”
In the years that followed, James would resurface under other pseudonyms (AFX, The Tuss) but his attention seemed firmly focused on straighter, safer, acid and techno sounds. The Aphex Twin identity remained largely dormant. But then, in August, there came a sign of life: a URL was posted from James’s largely inactive Twitter account. The link was only accessible via the “dark net” – a hidden layer of the web, famously home to black markets operating outside of government control. Cryptic, wild and wilfully anarchic, it seemed a perfect hiding place for Aphex Twin. There, on his 43rd birthday, he announced his first full-length offering in nearly 13 years.
Syro opens in relative brightness, the rich wobbly bass and squelchy synth arpeggios of minipops 67 (source field mix) recalling the strange and melodic sound of late-’90s Warp. It’s a nostalgic, reassuring sound and possibly designed as a misstep because with XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix) we’re deep in a new world of powerful Aphex psychedelia. For 10 minutes, an insistent, elastic alien groove seems to test its own limits of order and collapse, its thrilling tension heightened by a jittery drum break and false endings that threaten to derail the trip altogether. It’s a glimpse of where Syro could have gone, especially when heard alongside CIRCLONT6A (syrobonkus mix) which finds James revisiting the satanic wasp nest horror of 1995’s Come To Daddy, as distorted voices fight for space against a squall of high frequency feedback.
Frustratingly, this kind of experimentation is countered by other more aimless excursions, like produk 29 – a drab, overlong funk workout – and the cluttered hyperactivity of CI RCLONT14 (shrymoming mix) and s950tx16wasr10 (earth portal mix) in which James tries out every trick in his mesmerist’s magic box to see if anything can still surprise.
The difference is that, 10 years and countless Aphex imitators later, these old tricks now sound a bit tired – easy, even. What’s missing is that impish, dangerous side, the famous contorted grin and all that it suggests: humour and horror, surprise and confrontation. Richard D James may be back, it seems, but Aphex Twin is only just waking up.