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The return of Aphex Twin, and why it matters

Richard D. James, a 43 year old Cornish-English-by-way-of-Ireland musician best known as Aphex Twin, recently announced his first album in 13 years. Fans may describe this as roughly equivalent to a major prophet or minor deity returning from transcendent planes unknowable. Or at least a new Wu-Tang album that turns out to be pretty good.

The official press release, which appears to have been run through a half-dozen Google Translate filters before being converted back into English, was prefaced by a viral marketing campaign straight out of the street team playbook. The Aphex Twin logo appeared in graffiti in New York and Los Angeles, even on the side of a blimp over London. Listening parties are taking place as this article is being written. A track—called “minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix]” (because of course it is)—has been released to enhance the commercial viability of an artist considered  by at least half of those who encounter him to be  a little bit out there  or,  more likely, mega weird.


These types of marketing tactics are no longer rare, but they’ve been reported in relation to Aphex Twin with a kind of breathless anxiety usually reserved for artists understood in all corners of the critical community to be unimpeachable.

And make no mistake: James is one of the most important artists of the last 20 years. He was described by The Guardian in 2001 as “the most inventive and influential figure in contemporary electronic music.” (Presuming that The Guardian did indeed at the time have its ear pressed firmly to the wall between it and what it understood to be the contemporary electronic music scene, whatever and wherever that is.)

These are the kinds of marketing moves that we might, in our more cynical moments, describe as gimmicky, bereft of substance, tacky—the surreptitious embedding of product in every crack and niche of our daily lives. And yet, for some, the impending release of a new Aphex Twin album—which James is calling Syro (pronounced sigh-row)—has all of the legitimacy of a subcultural event. These moves, employed in service of your run-of-the-mill pop act, would simply be invasive, but because we’re talking about someone as associated with casual subversion as Aphex Twin, they can instead be interpreted as diametrically opposed to what a viral marketing campaign signs and signifies. It’s a kind of reverse viral campaign where the campaign itself is invaded, as if a re-appropriation of public space is underway. Cynicism is replaced with a Project Mayhem-like adolescent giddiness.

This is the stuff of mythmaking, of course, the inflation of an album into a cultural event—which is, after all, what all marketing campaigns aim to achieve. Before we’ve heard a lick of music, Syro is something to be notated, puzzled over, filed neatly into the linear histories of both the artist and the genre which the artist has helped to define, undermine, and redefine. Such is the power of Aphex Twin’s influence. James could present at the Grammys in a dress that says “My new album drops September 23rd” and it probably wouldn’t register much in the way of protestation. What’s most interesting is how this indestructible bubble of credibility was formed—and what it has to do with videogames.

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A few of the stylistic elements in “minipops 67” will sound familiar to Aphex Twin fans: variable patterns of percussion; warbly ambient melodies; distorted, robotic voices (though not as monstrously distended as one might expect); chimes and bells complementing an almost clinical fussiness. Everywhere an inhuman exactness and precision.

Aphex Twin is usually mentioned alongside musicians such as Stockhausen, John Cage, Satie, Steve Reich, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Autechre, u-Ziq—artists who employ mechanical and/or electronic methods to experiment with tones, dynamics and arrangements. But the timeline should actually be longer than that. Aphex Twin is a latter-day manifestation of an experimental tradition originating in the mid-20th Century that includes dissonance, polyrhythm, serialism, and just general counter-intuition relative to audience expectations. This tradition is more than just methods for composition. It was also a  philosophy to “relate the human mind to the world and create a completeness when dealing with a subject,” according to Markus Bandur in his 2001 Aesthetics of Total Serialism: Contemporary Research from Music to Architecture.

It’s all very consciously futuristic sounding—not Futurist but rather formalist and modernist.

The aesthetic ideal proposed by the experimental tradition is one of a closed system, a world unto itself into which the composer and listener enter to consider a subject. Aphex Twin’s music sounds like it’s from another world because, structurally, it proposes recurring themes from which James can then branch out and experiment—a separate but unified world in which composer and listener play with interpretation. In this way, we’re invited to interact with the music in much the same way we interact with environments and characters in  the digital worlds  of a videogame.

It’s all very consciously futuristic sounding—not Futurist, understand, in that it seeks to accurately predict the aesthetics of the future (which will probably be a bit grimier than all of this), but rather formalist and modernist. Aphex Twin seems to celebrate that which is at the fore of a linearly computed conception of progress, which is to say, the purely technological. It derives its value from the elements of its design and an almost absurdist negation of language. It breaks down anything you might latch onto in terms of literal meaning and leaves you with cold, hard surfaces and contours. It’s like a De Stijl painting—all hard lines and colors, about, primarily, the precision with which it’s rendered.

James first appeared in the early 90s when he co-founded Rephlex Records, a label dedicated to acid house music. Since that time he’s produced under the names Blue Calx, Bradley Strider, Brian Tregaskin, Caustic Window, The, Smojphace, GAK, Karen Tregaskin, Patrick Tregaskin, Martin Tressider, PBoD, Polygon Window, Power-Pill, Q-Chastic, Dice Man, The Tuss, Soit-P and Aphex Twin. He’s probably best known for his Aphex Twin album Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which was released to enormous critical palpitation and remains a singularly influential collection of electronic music. In fact, the evidence of its influence is so omnipresent in present day electronic music that it can sound predictable and derivative on first listen; it’s only when you have the spoon-bending epiphany that nothing before it consolidated its elements quite so concisely that James’ masterwork come into stark relief.

It’s also not difficult to imagine this music humming merrily along behind any number of game landscapes. That’s because James’ aesthetic, which he pioneered along with a few other artists, primarily out of the UK, mirrors the attitudes and experiences of people who spend a lot of time in digital worlds.

What Aphex Twin and videogames have in common, first and foremost, is play.

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Here are a couple of explicit connections between Aphex Twin and videogames:  in 1992, James released remixes of the Pac-Man theme on Pac-Man EP under the name Power Pill. Over 20 years later, in 2014, the ultra-rare 1994 Caustic Window LP was released as a digital download to backers of a Kickstarter campaign to buy a copy of the vinyl record from an anonymous seller. The crowdfunding was approved by James himself. When the campaign finished, the LP was placed for auction on eBay and purchased by Markus Persson, author of Minecraft. In these two anecdotes we have both James’ lip service to videogames in some of his earliest work, and a contemporary redux—lip service to James by the designer of one of the most ubiquitous videogames in the world.

Perhaps there’s a natural overlap in the sense that both game designers and players, and musicians and listeners, are producing and consuming art using computers and other digital tools. Perhaps it’s that there’s a degree of literacy required to make and consume digital art, as anyone who’s tried to teach a parent how to use a rudimentary smartphone app can attest. After all, James did initially announce Syro via Twitter with a URL to a deep web site that only works with the Tor browser. Knowing that the announcement would almost immediately be translated into the standard news-sized bites for everyone else, the gesture was a declaration of insider-ness, made strictly in terms of the production and consumption of information.

James’ catalogue and videogames both ultimately rely on some element of decoding to take place—understanding the signs and signifiers put into place of our interpretation, usually requiring some degree of technical literacy. We might more tellingly call this process interactivity. It makes gestures like James listing his gear in the album art for the new album understandable, because the aesthetic is not just one of tones, melodies, and rhythms, but also of technical literacy—almost of arming one another. In some ways, the electronic music community is not unlike the hacking community—largely anonymous or using pseudonyms, naturally allergic to hierarchy and control, and both reliant on and defined by the means of artistic production.

But perhaps more importantly, there’s also a sense of parody and mimicry, of decentralized authorship, and of general troll-dom that we might call play. Two of the best known Aphex Twin tracks, “Come to Daddy” (1997) and “Windowlicker” (1999) are parodies of death metal and hip-hop, respectively, a notion only amplified by their eerie Chris Cunningham videos.

(Beware of NSFW language, and imagery that’s probably not safe for your psyche.)

The payoff in that “Windowlicker” video, after an absurd four minutes of braggadocio, is a moment roughly akin to the enormous spacecraft in the opening scene of Spaceballs, itself a parody of Star Wars, itself a tribute to Westerns, themselves a strategic retelling of Manifest Destiny, and so on until you fall through a hole in the space-time continuum. And there, from the limo window, is James’ face—distended, creepy as fuck, a frozen expression of mockery—as if to say, “You want to see an artist? Well here he is … staring at you psychotically.” The dance that follows is at once perfect, obscene, and ridiculous. James and director Cunningham complement each other’s interest in the uncanny and the grotesque. Soon, the characters are changed, infected, turned into James clones—the world of the music video subsumed into the unified world of Aphex Twin. The payoff comes at the expense of the MTV Era’s throbbing Id.

In 2001, James released the quixotic, experimental computer-controlled piano album Drukqs, and seemed to finally turn the joke on his audience. Drukqs was often plaintive, quiet, anticlimactic. In other places it was impenetrable, frantic, Aphex Twin accelerated up to nearly—you guessed it—parodic levels. Drukqs seemed to simultaneously mock the touchstones on which love for Aphex Twin is built and return James to a tradition outside of himself. It didn’t help that many of the song titles were Cornish (example: “Kladfvgbung Micshk”), and even the album title was, to quote James, “made up.”

The irony here is that Drukqs was so straightforwardly faithful to the experimental work of Satie and Cage, all of them working with the automatic or mechanical piano. It’s possible that, with Drukqs, James was completing an album cycle that started with the negation of the ossified and mocking of established forms and finished with an album that pays tribute to forces larger than himself—tradition, classicism, and canon. It seems only fitting, in retrospect, that the only thing James could do after Drukqs was disappear for 13 years. Which might lead one to a cynical interpretation of the Syro album art, which details what percentage of each unit price is determined by the Syro marketing budget, is that this album is a blatant cash-grab—a convenient packaging of accessible pre-existing material now that the official Aphex Twin album cycle has come to a close.

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There’s a kind of synesthesia at work in Aphex Twin’s music—auditory cues evoke visual and spatial sensations. Am I dating myself in admitting that the game that comes immediately to mind when listening to “minipops 67” is Wipeout 3? You can hear the whole soundtrack to that game here, featuring music from The Chemical Brothers, Orbital, and the Propellerheads, all of whom owe some debt to James’ work as Aphex Twin. Maybe I’m unconsciously recalling the scene from the vaguely dystopian movie Hackers where Angelina Jolie is schooled in Wipeout. (It bears mentioning that the linked Youtube clip has had its audio removed due to a copyright claim, which seems ripe for interpretation.)

This is the intersection at which we find ourselves today: music that was once avant-garde, or at least understood so universally as such that it accompanied any number of techno-futuristic fantasies, has become a bit staid and hokey. Even if Syro still generates interest, James’ contemporaries have not aged particularly well; to listen to house music today feels not unlike reading an early William Gibson novel. Though we find ourselves living in something like the future these visionaries anticipated, the verisimilitude can’t help but be inexact—predicting the future is a complex task, after all. What might have been legitimately visionary sometimes  reveals itself to be one or more aesthetic steps off target, like when the characters in a cyberpunk novel live their lives in a virtual world and yet seem to have not yet invented wireless internet.

This is the intersection at which we find ourselves today: music that was once avant-garde. 

Yet we continue to look to visionaries like Gibson and James to tell us what will come next. This seems especially important to gaming, where developers are navigating contradictory impulses to ramp up the complexity of aesthetic and narrative literacy—to establish a subculture to call their own—while simultaneously making the game’s interface as seamless and accessible (and commercially viable) as possible . I’m imagining Minecraft’s Persson consulting his physical copy of the Caustic Window LP as one would consult runes for the obscured features of distant truths.

That James has a new album coming out seems like an opportunity to ask: what’s coming?

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The trickster mentality isn’t new. James—many-named, manipulated visage, not overly faithful to anything but the experiment at hand—is carrying on very old traditions, but it seems significant that this cultural trickster figure is creating virtual worlds in which the experiment can live. James recently said to Rolling Stone: “We’re half-cyborg already, whether we like it or not. Everything is based on computers—our whole economy, and most of our creative pursuits, as well. We’re not physically connected to them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not part of our brains.”

Perhaps Aphex Twin’s music is speaking to a part of our brains that has altered over the years to understand how to live and manage information in digital worlds. That the listener may compartmentalize and process an Aphex Twin song the same way she might consume information on the internet, or navigate the world of a videogame, seems important in that we might find, in our reflection on art like James’, evidence of just how digitized our lives have become.