"Aphex Twin": These two words conjure sonic images. Anyone familiar with Richard D. James and his electrically animated corpus have expectations, desires, attitude. They're already trying to hear what it sounds like before they've heard it. For years, proclaiming oneself a fan of Aphex Twin (usually stated along the lines of "I really dig the Aphex Twin, man" – that inclusion of the definite article being a given, it seems) was akin to waving a burning flag, wearing an acid- ragged T-Shirt, or thrusting some kind of manifesto into the face of oncoming human traffic. Given the recent hubbub in webland and far beyond its borders, it's clear that this is – to a very large and significant degree – still the case.
With James's primary alter-ego (at least, primary in the eyes of the majority – does he think this?), the expectations are both high, and specific. The expectation that he will "blow your mind", that he will "shock you", that he will create something "utterly bonkers and original" have been commonplace. Many listeners will be initially disappointed by "Syro" for this reason. Others will pretend to immediately have "got it" and smile smugly (while in actuality, they wish is all sounded like "Acrid Avid Jam Shred" or "Windowlicker" or "Come To Daddy"). My initial thoughts on the "Syro" material were "uhhh …?" (Visualise hairy fool with open-mouth, teetering perilously close to allowing the drool of utter confusion spill from its corner).
The album's kick-off is "Minipops '67 [Source Field Mix]", a developed bastard offspring of "Windowlicker", and not merely for the inclusion of vocal elements. There is something oddly funky about this track. It seems almost body-danceable, not exclusively a brain-dance. This trend continues with XMAS_EVET10 [Thanaton3 mix], and onwards. The exceptions would be "fz pseudotimestretch+e+3" and "aisatsana", the former being a short and sparse piece, while the latter is a throwback to the prepared piano pieces of "Drukqs". Aside from these pieces, there are similar moments throughout the album, but never with such sustained focus.
The album's pace is as close to relentless as it could possibly be without entering the borderlands of the unlistenable. Breathing spaces are few and slender. Each track cracks on apace, each with more musical notions and contortions than appear in many artists entire back catalogue. Listening to it feels like playing a car racing video game, with wildly unpredictable track layouts, and more than a few instances where your full quota of wheels leave the ground. But it doesn't sound like videogame music. Nor does it sound like experimental electronic music. Nor does it sound like dance music. Yet, for all that's going on, I keep getting that kind of funky vibe, as though this was a soundtrack for a pimp on the streets of some alien ghetto.
Taking no glaringly specific cues for his sound (and it is his sound that strikes first – the musicality comes through later, for the most part), and to enumerate his (possible) influences is largely a complete waste of time with James (although it fills a paragraph or so, if you let it). It's abundantly clear that all music, and all sound is fair game. He has no interest in genre per se, despite happily being a creator of dance music, etc (his indirect exchange with Karlheinz Stockhausen – as recorded by "the Wire" magazine – being a good example – possibly; then again, upon listening to "Syro" it could be said that James took Stockhausen's advice, but has spent the time since disguising the fact).
James's abilities as an engineer are fascinating. He manages to saturate the sound spectrum, yet none of his mixes are muddy. The elements are all there to be picked out, and picking them out is no mean feat, particularly on first listen. I have been through this album multiple times now, and each listen is revealing previously unnoticed details. Your listening environment creates a kind of automatic remix of the album: it's not the same on earphones as it is on the living room HiFi as it is on the car sound system. You could safely add club to that, although, for all the adulation that many DJs send in an Aphex Twin direction, I have rarely encountered his music coming out of large bass bins – and this is exactly the point of "Intelligent Dance Music" – your brain is the dancefloor. However, I have been blessed with the occasional pub excursion that was soundtracked by Aphex Twin tracks, if not entire albums – more of a revelation to watch fellow pubgoers respond to it, than anything else. But to return to the point: the album does seem to adjust to the listening environment, revealing certain details more readily in certain environments. This could be said of any album, but with an album as rich in sound as this, this fact becomes much more apparent.
At the risk of being held as a damnable blasphemer, I would also contend that for all that is identifiably "Aphex Twin" about this album, as often as not, I was thinking as much of late 90s Squarepusher while listening. I should emphasise, however, that this is neither a criticism nor an indicator I didn't enjoy what I was hearing – quite the opposite. "Syro", on the surface at least (and surface is definitely a concept that can be applied to Aphex Twin releases, as they all contain unfathomable depths, even at their sparsest moments) sometimes sounds like where I would have expected Tom Jenkinson's sound to go rather than where it did ("Hello Everything", "Just a Souvenir" and subsequently "Shobaleader One"). And again, this is no bad thing.
Also interesting to note is the lack of "look at me" moments. No Satanic vocals, deliberate iconoclasm, or foregrounded weirdness. This is an album that is, straight up, top to bottom and throughout, about the music. All of which is to be expected from an artist whose career spans more than 2 decades. Moreover, the epithet "artist" is of note. Many "artists" fail to mature. They go on attempting to create the same impact they did at the beginning of their careers, and attempt to achieve the same accolades and commercial successes. These are, obviously enough, better known as "pop stars" in the main, and art is rarely, if ever, their goal. U2 and Madonna are obvious examples of this syndrome, both somehow believing that a refusal to act their age is enough to be convincing substitutes for twentysomethings doing the same basic thing again: the refusal simply isn't enough, and James is clearly aware of this (albeit within his non-central "Star" position). What is needed is an innate understanding that the authenticity is the primary element to get right. After that, everything should fall into place (perhaps with a little bit of nudging). There is nothing obviously innovative about "Syro". And it is clear that James wasn't striving for that. Instead, he has striven to present the sounds and techniques, the stylistic idiosyncrasies, and his personal habits/preferences of musical composition in the best possible way. And in this, he has certainly achieved his desired ambition.
Of course, what I am essentially doing here, as many writers on music will do and have already done, is mindraping Richard D. James. I am thinking thoughts, based upon listening to his album "Syro" and asserting that my thoughts and his are synchronized. I have my doubts about that. I have very strong doubts, indeed.
This is the problem with Richard D. James or Aphex Twin or whatever moniker he chooses to use/abuse: you can never be certain of what he is up to. Is he taking the piss with this bit that sounds like the aftermath of a sponsored milk-guzzle by a battalion of lactose-intolerant penguins? Is he really in earnest with those bizarre vocal snippets that are processed beyond comprehension? Does he mean a word he says in interviews?
This uncertainty about "authorial intention" is a major part of the appeal James's music has. He is an anti-celebrity, both figuratively, and literally. He has reached a point where he could release almost anything, and get away with it. The trouble is, you can never be quite certain that he isn't doing that already. As I write this, I have a nagging feeling that whatever I write, there is a strong chance that, if he should ever read it, he might be reduced to a human cartoon scribble of howling laughter, like La Linea, perhaps.
Will I still be listening to this album in 20 years with the same warm fuzzy glow I get when listening to "Selected Ambient Works 85-92" or "I Care Because You Do" or "Richard D. James" or even the slightly tougher listen of "Drukqs"? I honestly don't know. I didn't expect to still be listening to any of the other aforementioned albums, so how can I be certain now? So, no proclamation that this will be forever heralded as a masterpiece, either. That would be foolish, even if it turns out to be true.
"Reviewing" an album is basically something that one does for a number of reasons, but fundamentally, you are trying to express why you like or dislike it. I like this album, quite a bit in fact. At this stage, I am not certain of the specific whys and wherefores involved: it is simply too densely constructed for a useful deconstruction of what I find appealing.
Despite having busily scribed 1500+ words or so about this artist and his latest album here, the fact remains that the only review of this album that is worth your time, and that will be 100% reliable is the review it will create inside your own head when you listen to it. All I can do is recommend that you review it thus at the first available opportunity. You decide. And then see if you can encapsulate your feelings after a half dozen playthroughs. ;)