Review: Classic Album: Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92
It's funny how the mind can play tricks on you. It's funny that this particular, apparent mis-remembrance, should concern this particular musician.
Misinformation traditionally swirled around Richard D. James like water exits a bathtub sink-hole. Stories abounded and you didn't know what to believe. In the early days of the internet if someone didn't want to be pinned down they could be what they wanted to be, largely disappear - and they could also be what other people wanted them to be.
He did own a tank. He didn't live on a roundabout in London. I believe him when he once said he often went several days without sleep while working on music. Early interview videos show a young man uncomfortable with being the center of attention and often unwilling to make eye-contact while still talking at length and often using long words and attempting to explain complicated concepts that are clearly over the head of the interviewer. I wonder if he is, to some extent, autistic (not a disability, it's a condition that has little detrimental effect on many who have it). It would explain the drive to create to the exclusion of everything else, obsession with detail, the behavioral ticks, the different way of looking at the world. There is autism in my family and I recognise the signs. There was a recent theory published that suggested autistics were often, down through history, responsible for many of the great discoveries and leaps in thinking that helped civilization evolve.
He was famously pretty choosy about when and how he did interviews - sometimes with rather obscure publications. Occasionally he'd do an interview with NME or something, but he was just as likely to do one for some photocopied fanzine that only sold in two music shops in Morecombe or something (a year or two ago I found something like this and it was one of the most enlightening interviews I've read with him - the interviewer, years later, scanned it and made it available for everyone online. If I find it I'll update this article with it). Replies to questions on film and in print could often be curt or downright rude.
Anyhow, back to my memory that I could have sworn was true, but can find no evidence of now. It's always, for years, been a "fact" to me that this album wasn't an album at all and was something James himself was unhappy with. Instead it was a bunch of tracks slapped together and released in order to satisfy a contract agreement with the Belgian label he was then signed to. I can find no evidence of this now, though as soon as this album was released James set up his own label, Replex.
This story never sat quite right with me, though, as not only is the quality of the music, of course, so refined and imaginative, but each track sits so well together - it feels like a work that has been meticulously arranged. It's not some random "greatest hits" package as I'd somehow come to think of it (and yet thought deeply weird).
A few years ago you could visit Reflex's website (the most sparse commercial website I've ever seen) and order copies of his old, seminal, Analogue Bubblebath Ep's. I did. They arrived in clear plastic CD-cases with a sticker featuring sparse information slapped on the front telling you what it was. The name of the EP and composer etched, tiny, around the hole in the middle of the CD.
We met once. That's overstating things. I was in London with a group of schoolmates to see some play as part of a History field-trip and this rather intense looking man was sat opposite me on the Tube. He was reading a book. There was something quite mesmerizing about him and I was deeply curious as to what he was reading. Obviously, he felt my eyes on him and his head snapped up and he stared right at me until I looked away. He went back to his book. We happened to get off at the same stop and he took off in the opposite direction to where we were going. It was only while we stood around outside the theatre that I thought I realised who it might have been. Same hair, exact same facial features, same build. I had a friend who happened to be there and was also into Aphex Twin. I mentioned who I thought I'd just seen and how I wished I'd said something; shown some appreciation for his work.
"It's good you didn't", my friend said. "He's famous for hating people who come up to him and try talking to him". Real? Another story in the legend that is Richard D. James? Who knows.
Some time later I was looking up the address of Reflex's offices (I was actually considering sending a demo in - ugh) and I realised that Tube stop was the nearest one to the office. I like to think it was him.
So, why yet another review of this album? Because there are always people who haven't found it yet. Because it means so much to me. Because I was around and responding to it at the very time it came out, an experience that at least gives me a different outlook on what this music is, was and will be seen as going forward. I'm able to put this album in a different context to some intern at a music magazine who just listened to it for the first time. Not a better, superior, context, but...
More personal? And that's something Richard D. James' music seems to inspire in people - particularly the earlier, more listenable, stuff - people seem to latch onto it and treasure it in ways that is rare.
It hasn't dated. At all. Even something like Ptolemy which starts with and occasionally persists with claps, kicks and snares that sound like they were just sampled directly from a Roland 808 fail to age the music. That growling bass synth and the floating medative, beautific, melody lends the tune a futuristic air. It feels like you're in a nightclub years from now and the DJ has just decided to throw in a few old-school sounds just to mix things up a bit.
Heliosphan and Ageispolis, featured here, are my very favourite tunes on the album. They summarise everything that it great about this album - how it sounds like nothing else, like it's randomly been dropped in from the deep future. It takes me places, creates environments, makes me want to go to wherever this music has come from. And yet there are elements of danger here, too. The likes of Tha and Hedphelym stray into the types of industrial soundscapes found in Richard D. James' next album, Surfing on Sine Waves (released under the name Polygon Window) - an album I bought after hearing two tracks from it one night on the John Peel Radio Show. I didn't even know it was by Richard D. James. It was the first album of his I bought - Warp Records, largely James' home by now and going forward - didn't yet mean anything to me.
The nearest thing we have to an actual contemporary to James from around this time is actually a one-time collaborator of his - Tom Middleton. His ambient album 76:14 was, and still is, seen by many as a classic, but it hasn't, in this reviewers' opinion, stood the test of time as well. Coming 2 years later than Selected Ambient Works it lacks the invention of the earlier work. According to Wikipedia Mixmag ranked 76:14 at number 11 in it's "Best Dance Albums of All Time". It's a weird fucking list. I wonder if the writer would still stand by it. And it's actually less of a dance album than S.A.W (Pulsewidth and Delphium are pure futuristic electro-funk).
This track 14:31 is still a beautiful one, but here the reliance on standard synth samples mean that the track occasionally shows its age. Other tracks on the album are even more guilty of this.
It's impossible to say, but would we have this tune - in this form - if it hadn't been for Aphex's earlier work? Who's to say. But the name "Global Communication" and jet-plane samples don't do it any favours - all these years on and it seems like a product of it's time. At the same time James' non-reliance on standard sampling, or - when he did it - the purposely blatant nature of it, means that it hasn't aged the music in the same way. He was, and the music still is, miles ahead of the competition.
It always seemed odd to me that James dropped ambient music so abruptly after Volume 2. It turns out he didn't. Recently an absolute mass of it has seemingly hit the internet, semi-clandestinely and apparently by the man himself. It's a puzzle, and a shame that such music be unheard for so long. But if you were to change the strange actions of this supremely gifted man you wouldn't have the same individual who made it in the first place.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Richard D. James.
Images and video property of Apollo Records/Warp/Aphex Twin