A Call From The Weird Fringes: Aphex Twin's 'Syro'

Sep 23, 2014
Originally published on September 23, 2014 4:20 pm

In music these days, the fastest-moving genre is electronic dance music, or EDM. It's the sound most people associate with rave culture and artists like Skrillex. But 20 years ago, Richard D. James — better known as Aphex Twin — was making a very different kind of electronic music, as heard on landmark releases like 1994's Selected Ambient Works Vol. II.

This week, James is back with Syro, the first new Aphex Twin album in more than a decade — making him a bit like an Unfrozen Caveman DJ, returning to a changed world. His field of endeavor has exploded commercially and splintered into thousands of subgenres. It's also become more predictable, which is one reason many have awaited his return.

Aphex Twin's early records expanded the lockstep pulse of techno and related rhythms with shadowy, brooding atmospheres. Syro explores similar undercurrents, rendered with a gear head's fanatic attention to detail. In fact, the album artwork includes a list of instruments used in each track.

Where some producers set up a foundational beat and then let it repeat endlessly, Aphex Twin drops in slight changes from one measure to the next. These give the mixes an ear-grabbing element of unpredictability. Syro's cryptically named tracks, like the nine-minute-plus "XMAS_EVE10 [120] [thanaton3 mix]," evolve over time: Riffs pile up on top of each other amid sudden breakdowns and scene changes.

What's striking about the new Aphex Twin is how out of step it is with most of the glitzy mainstream electronic world. Its vast, richly textured dreamscapes call from the weird fringe of a genre that used to be nothing but weird fringes. It's possible to dance to this music, but you can just get lost inside it, too.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

What's cool in electronic music seems to change by the week. But one name that perseveres is Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin. He was creating groundbreaking sounds 20 years ago and he hasn't stopped.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN SONG)

SIEGEL: That's from Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, "Selected Ambient Works Vol. II." Today marks the first Aphex Twin release in more than a decade. It's called, "Syro." Our reviewer Tom Moon says it's a turn away from the current electronic mainstream.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MINIPOPS 67, 120.2")

TOM MOON, BYLINE: In the 13 years since the last Aphex Twin album, the world of electronic pop music has exploded commercially and splintered into thousands of sub-genres. But it's also become a bit more predictable, which is one reason many have been awaiting this return.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN SONG)

MOON: Aphex Twin's early records expanded the lockstep pulse of techno with brooding, shadowy atmospheres. The new album explores similar undercurrents, rendered with a gearhead's fanatic attention to detail.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN SONG)

MOON: Where some producers set up a foundational beat and then let it repeat endlessly, Aphex Twin drops in slight changes from one measure to the next. This gives the mixes an ear grabbing element of unpredictability.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN SONG)

MOON: And these pieces evolve over time. Riffs pileup on top of each other and there are sudden breakdowns and scene changes. Check out where this tune ends up.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN SONG)

MOON: What's striking about the new Aphex Twin is how out of step it is with most of the glitzy mainstream electronic world. Its textured dreamscapes call from the weird fringe of a genre that used to be nothing but weird fringes. It's possible to dance to this music but you can just get lost inside it too.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN SONG)

SIEGEL: Aphex Twin's latest is called "Syro." Our reviewer is Tom Moon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.