Music Features

Happy Anniversary... Selected Ambient Works Volume II

What is the ideal reaction to a collection of songs defined as "Intelligent Dance Music"? What does one do, in the case of Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, after sitting through all 24 of the untitled tracks, most of which consist of eerie noises, swirling sounds and a rare gauzy beat or two? Shall we make crackling comments and talk about Brian Eno? Let's also express our love for Rhubarb, the third song of the disc, represented solely by an image of--that's right--a rhubarb plant. And finally don't forget to pretend that we listen to this kind of music every day because it just suits the kind of minds we have. We certainly cannot dismiss it--not if it's the intellectual sort of stuff.

Is it really though? The IDM categorization has been controversial specifically because of the loaded implication behind it, the one which suggests that anything that pounds in a club is somehow inferior or less complex than anything that wends through an introspective (and often drug-laced) mind. The problem with such reasoning is that it disregards the entire aesthetic of Selected Ambient Works Volume II. This record is one of unfiltered sensation, a stream of subconscious worlds and fragmented dreams. Why bring intellect into the discussion? Save it for The Mars Volta with their thesaurus-based lyrics and SAT vocabulary. Save it for those with discerning ears and fine tastes who fear unabashed techno beats and scrumptious hooks (though to be honest, the record in question lacks both). Save it for when we feel the need to define what we listen to by indirectly judging that which we do not.

Let no newcomer be fooled however. Selected Ambient Works Volume II is no easy trip to make (and that's the first thing to keep in mind--it's a trip, not just a record). The good thing is that, much unlike the label it has been made to bear, not once does Richard D. James' music in this disc seek to discriminate between different types of listeners. Come in with time (at least two and a half hours), an alert mind (do not fall asleep during Radiator or White Blur 1 lest nightmares reach sinister proportions) and just a basic grasp of what ambient music intends to sound like, and Selected Ambient Works Volume II will do the rest. It is a demanding piece, with tracks clocking in at eleven minutes and long swathes of time where the same blooping synth motif pulsates uninterruptedly. But it is also a rewarding one, a brilliant display of sonic minimalism and synaesthetic creativity.

We'll have better luck describing the songs here through the mental images they evoke rather than through adjectives. Opening track Cliffs starts us off with disembodied vocal snippets and an atmosphere suited to a high-tech planetarium. The faint beat of Grass is reminiscent of footfalls on some distant stairway. Weathered Stone and Shiny Metal Rods are two of the more beat-oriented tracks, the former with its laid-back hip hop feel and dial-up modem beeps and the latter boasting a twitchy, Industrial groove. The spaced-out, sound-in-a-vacuum mood of the album resurfaces multiple times, most noticeably in Grey Stripe (which is half whale calls in the deep sea and half windstorms in deep space) and in Spots, where we get some idea as to what interstellar signal transmission may sound like in the future. Really, everything here is deliriously lush. A tad creepy as well, but after seeing James' grin on album covers for years now, we shouldn't really be surprised. .

After all this, Selected Ambient Works Volume II is beautifully coherent yet also strangely inaccessible to someone operating under the assumption that anything synthesized electronically has an element of easy likability compared to stuff, say, by Tera Melos or even your average Yo La Tengo-esque indie group. Perhaps it was this sensation that resulted in the need to create the Intelligent Dance Music catch-all (a label which--and I promise this is the last parenthetical citation--James did not agree with at all). Specious genre denominations aside, Selected Ambient Works Volume II succeeds not because it is "brainier" than other forms of electronic music out there, but because it doesn't try to be. It is effortless and, much like its predecessor, seminal and singular. Call it dull or get lost in the sound waves--here's music that has aged very well indeed.