Music Reviews

Aphex Twin Syro

(Warp) Rating - 9/10

Perhaps more than any other genre, electronic music is compartmentalised, bunched into movements and styles, as if defined by the frontiers it broaches. What the old “IDM” (“Intelligent Dance Music”) tag signified wasn’t “intelligence”, more that those who merited it simply didn’t cohere – Squarepusher and Autechre, yes, but mostly Richard D. James. The label wouldn’t have existed were it not for Aphex Twin. Under his manifold guises, James has gone further, in terms of both technical mastery and sheer musical innovation than any of his peers.

After his last album Drukqs (2001), both scatty and masterful, James has reverted somewhat; the curve was no longer his to be ahead of. In the mid-2000s, his old-skool Analord EPs under his AFX moniker and the admirably manic EPs as The Tuss suggested a spiritual reversion to the days of the hands-on knob twiddling of which James is the undisputed master, yet these releases seemed markedly unambitious. Syro is another devoutly analog record in this lineage which sounds as if it could have been made in 1996, yet its scope is much greater, and its relative archaism doesn’t stop it from sounding strides ahead of most electronic music in 2014.

Reviewers often remark about the sheer level of information entering your ears when you listen to Aphex Twin, and this applies to Syro in particular – its constant introduction of new channels on a bar-by-bar basis, its scrupulous avoidance of repetition, the giddy amount of equipment at James’ obliging disposal. Yet more remarkable is the fact that not once does any of the structural maximalism of the album come across as ostentatious. Every little detail steers the mood of these pieces; never does the machinery supersede the spectacle.  Most of James’ former work tends to float within one emotional space, but on Syro James is more interested in seeing how much emotive ground he can cover, gliding eloquently between his textures, such that his tracks will end in places completely different to where they began, without any incongruous left-turns.

What is most radical about Syro is that its “maximalism” – which has become something of a buzzword signifying little more than musical complexity – seems in the lineage not of “maximalist” producers like Flying Lotus, Kanye West, or Hudson Mohawke; it has more in common with the great western classical tradition of the sonata form. The connection is notional more than formal; this is not the Exposition, Development and Recapitulation as perfected by the dead white men of the classical hegemony, but this record deserves the comparison, because so little music of the current moment takes the sonata’s principle of theme & variation as a method of musical development with quite this much nuance and skill.

The difference is that it’s theme and variation on a micrological more than macrological level. The music makes more sense right in the moment; when you step back and wonder where you’ve gone, what you’ve felt, you’re left unsure – but that’s always been Aphex Twin’s greatest strength. What exactly are you supposed to feel when you listen to Syro? Like all of James’ best work, you can’t tell, yet you still feel it intensely.

So much is going on that even devoting a paragraph to each track barely scratches the surface. I’ll start with the record’s opener, Minipops 67 (Source Field Mix), the album’s lead single and as good an indicator as any of Syro’s aesthetics – James leaps straight in with a drum machine pattern in his own idiosyncratic angle on jungle rhythms, and within seconds there are more channels than your brain can keep track of. The bassline he introduces scarcely fits into any key, and it defines the contours of the angular melodic variations he introduces, develops, plays in polyphony with each other. When James’ own voice enters, singing eerily warped wordless syllables in a phrase ending with the words “with you” – the effect of these uncanny, deliberately off-key sounds is astonishing. His pinpoint turns between neck-snapping rhythms and disorientating ghostly howls are seamless. It shouldn't work, but it does.

Produk 29 may give a better sense of the way these pieces develop. The first half of the track is a bizarre atonal strutting funk vamp, thoroughly mystifying in its moods, perversely compelling despite its harmonic erraticness. Midway through, a sample of cut-up female voices intrudes, as if it’s an overheard conversation louder than your headphone comfort zone: “Like, we were at that club” / “Disgusting” / “A fucking whore” – and the word “whore” reverberates as if you’re stricken by its ugliness. It's as if the song you were listening to is driven into a dirge by what is overheard, and the rest of the piece is a dialectical tussle between the theme of the first half’s wonky groove and the swelling synth minor chords which effectively douse out the track’s ill-fitting swagger. It sounds literally as if your concentration has been broken by the interruption, as if you are trying to get back into the music you were listening to, but struggling; James reintroduces the same themes but denies their natural bounce. The track twice unravels into a broken chord whose notes refuse to adhere to any familiar harmonic system - the record is full of a vague sense of threat, but here it tips over into something truly disorientating. A hi-hat taps tentatively back into the track’s swing, but its vibe has been killed.

After eleven tracks which prove consistently relentless in their invention, the record ends with Aisatsana, a lonely major-key piano piece with the ambience of a field recording, bird calls, as if it’s been played in light morning air – simple piano phrases gradually adding notes and harmonies, slowly relaxing itself, unfolding in its hushed beauty. It is Syro stripped to its core, a deconstruction of its compositional techniques: when the blaring drum machines and acid squelches, the abstract key changes and rhythmic jagged edges are taken away, what is left is simple and calm, but it never repeats itself, always adding something new.

James wrote Syro in the studio, and has spoken of his approach to his equipment setups, the record’s constant addition of new hardware with new sounds and ideas, as the result of a short attention span. This would normally be a problem, but at its finest it produces some career highlights: this is one of the most engaging albums I’ve heard in a long time. It isn't perfect, its sheer restlessness prevents it from being so, but it will undoubtedly come to be remembered as another masterpiece from possibly the greatest electronic composer to walk the earth.