Aphex Twin: Collapse EP (12″, Warp, September 2018)

First impressions can be deceiving. Having been underwhelmed Aphex’s two releases in 2015 and, I’ll admit, having largely forgotten about the 2016 one, I was prepared to be hurt again with this. And the first two minutes of the lead track, T69 Collapse, seemed to confirm my fears: it’s kind of a skittering drill’n’bass number with a bit of an acid bassline and it’s nice enough but it’s all a bit polite in this day and age (this sound is, by my estimate, about 23 years old now). Then  suddenly it all, well, collapses, into a much more intense pummelling of drums and wailing of synths. The final third reverts to the more polite mode, but suddenly there’s more going on and everything is far more interesting. And the next four tracks are also varied and complex and really pretty good. 1st 44 has some nice sparse moments with almost a dancehall sound, complete with distorted toasting. MT1 t29r9 has some of the most dancy moments, but also some of the floatiest. abundance10edit[2 R8’s, FZ20m & a 909] has sounds that reach back into the early-90s ambient techno days, complete with sci-fi-ish vocal samples, although some of the beats are more breaksy. And pthex is a good example of Analord-era woozy breakbeat acid. On the whole… sure, he’s not breaking much new ground here, but this has to be his strongest release since 2014’s Syro, and a nice reminder of why we love the great man despite all our scepticism.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

Aphex Twin: Cheetah EP (12″, Warp, July 2016)

Remember 2014, when new Aphex material (and new old Caustic Window, in particular) was really exciting? Remember 2015, when new Aphex material was kinda *shrug* and “whatevs”? Well, now it’s 2016, and perhaps I’m just about ready to treat new Aphex material on its merits, rather than harking back to the ’90s. Perhaps… Anyway, on this basis 2016 is shaping up to be, well, somewhere in between. Here are four tracks (plus two half-minute excerpts) of bloopy woozy low-tempo analogue acid techno, sort of like Analord with a hint of Windowlicker — and, in the video game blips and blurps on B1, a reminder of his take on the Pac-Man tune as Power-Pill. There’s no track listing on the vinyl, but the internet reveals that the A-side tracks are variants of “cheetah”, a reference to the vintage synth of that name, and the B-side of “cirklon”, a reference to a hardware sequencer. It’s sonically satisfying and the tunes are nice… but, still, if it weren’t for the weird RDJ-completism habit I can’t seem to shake, I’m pretty sure I would never have bought this.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

AFX: Orphaned Deejay Selek 2006–2008 (LP, Warp, August 2015)

The latest in the recent run of releases from the pen of RDJ is his first under the AFX name since (by my reckoning) the untitled split 12″ with LFO ten years ago. If the title is to be believed, it was made in the three years following that — and it’s quite believable, because the skewed analog acid sounds are, well, an awful lot like the 11-disc Analord project which also appeared in 2005. It’s a pleasing blend of lithe beats and off-kilter melodies, and it is, of course, produced with great skill. But, after all this time, this really doesn’t feel like a significant addition to the canon. I can’t quite put my finger on why I’m underwhelmed by this whereas I was blown away by last year’s Caustic Window LP, a full twenty years old on its release. Perhaps it’s age means that it feels neither modern nor vintage; perhaps it’s because there was so much of this stuff around that, even at the time, I was overwhelmed by the volume of the Analord material; perhaps it’s because the excitement of OMG New Aphex Stuff petered out about five months ago; or perhaps this music simply isn’t as good. I mean, obviously I’m still pleased I bought it, but

I bought this from bleep. They call it Electronic and Electronica Electro and Acid Dancefloor and Techno. They appear to have given a bonus download-only track called umil 25-01 to everyone who bought it. That’s a nice piece of work, but very much more of the same.

Aphex Twin: MARCHROMT30a Edit 2b 96 (LP, Warp, April 2015)

The first of Aphex’s recent flurry of releases (proper releases, that is, I can’t begin to digest all the soundcloud stuff) which really made me go ‘meh’ in the style of a proper old-skool odds-and-sods sort-of-meh Aphex 12″. The title track, which was a bonus track on the Japanese version of last year’s Syro, is a wheezing thing of stuttering beats and distorted vocals: it’s okay, but it’s weaker than the rest of that album and I think leaving it off was the right call. Next up is a remix of the album’s second track, XMAS_EVET10 [120] [thanaton3 mix]. That was very much in the “lovely bloopy ambient techno” section of the record, and appears here in a stripped down fashion as XMAS_EVET1 N: it seems to have most of the same elements (which is a bit weird, his remixes being frequently unrecognizable) but it uses fewer of them at once… to be honest, it sounds thin by comparison and I don’t think it’s very interesting. The final track is a remix of the first, it’s called MARCHROMT38 fast, and it does pretty much what it says on the tin, sounding suspiciously like the title track played at 45 instead of 33: it’s probably the most fun here, although in this context it does end up sounding sort of hurried.

I bought this from Bleep.

Aphex Twin: Computer Controlled Electronic Instruments pt 2 EP (LP, Warp, January 2015)

2014 was pretty exciting for old-timey Aphex Twin fans such as your humble blogger, with the releases of both the Caustic Window LP and Syro. The former was recorded in 1994 and only saw the light of day due to a kickstarter campaign. We don’t actually know when the material for the latter dates from, though it seems to span a number of years, the record being billed as a round-up of tracks from the archive to clear the decks for a new direction.

This EP, then, seems to be that new direction. Syro was mostly a whistle-stop tour through Aphex’s ’90s styles, with only the closing track, the player-piano number Aisatsana, giving a preview of what he was working on. It turns out that he’s built a whole array of mechanical devices which play pianos (seemingly both via the keyboard and directly on the strings), drums, and percussion instruments, controlled by computer. There’s an obvious contrast with his old mucker Squarepusher’s Music For Robots EP, released in April last year. Jenkinson’s machines were made by a Japanese robotics company, and sounded to me like the musical equivalent of an automated factory production line: they put out precision-engineered notes at an impressive rate, but their efficiency was rather boring and occasionally overwhelming. RDJ’s homemade jobs have much more personality: they’re like the adorably ramshackle robots in a kids’ movie, clanking and thunking around the junk-strewn laboratory of the eccentric genius who created them. If Heath Robinson (or, for US readers, Rube Goldberg) made musique concrète, it would probably sound a bit like this. There are twinkling piano melodies (somewhat reminiscent of the Satie-inspired numbers on Drukqs) and jazzy little swing numbers and it’s all rather good fun. But, after all that, this is about the best I can say about it: it’s an interesting technique, there are nice little tunes, it has character and charm, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where he goes with this… but this music falls notably short of the greatness of his best work.

I bought this from Bleep. They call it Electronic and Electronica.

Aphex Twin: Syro (3xLP Warp, September 2014)

As I mentioned recently, I was a huge Aphex fan back in the day. So I was pretty excited about his first full album in 13 years and his first proper release in 7. Given his long-standing haphazard attitude to quality control, and frankly the downturn in quality of his more recent material, I was also a bit nervous. My first impression when I heard this was that it was definitely interesting and would need a few more listens. Interesting is a good start, right? A good few listens later, I think I’m ready to say that this is actually really good. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is better than Drukqs. And I actually quite liked Drukqs. As for how it compares to his mid-90s material… I really can’t say. Those records changed my life in a way this never could. But it makes me feel nostalgic and happy while also sounding excitingly futuristic, and that’s a pretty good result.

Enough circumlocution, let’s get on with it. Syro is powerfully strange. It uses sounds and rhythms and even key signatures which are uniquely RDJ’s, and puts them together in totally unexpected ways. He claims that no two bars are identical, and I can believe that. It’s like the music evolves, with periods of gradual mutation (a beat added, a filter tweaked) broken up by sudden jumps. All of which could be pretty irksome except that… you know what, he’s still really really good at this stuff, and once you’ve got your head into the right place, everything seems totally natural and right, logical according to some weird parallel-universe logic. Plus, it’s actually pretty catchy.

The first track, minipops 67 (source field mix), was the one which got all the advanced radio play, and is a sort of deranged funk with not-quite-comprehensible vocal moaning noises that kind of reminds me of Windowlicker. The next three tracks are a lovely bloopy ambient techno somewhere on an axis between Selected Ambient Works 85‒92 and …I Care Because You Do. I’d call out produkt 29 for the impressive feat of taking a frankly quite annoying vocal sample of sloaney clubbers and making it sound just perfect in the context: the moment at the end when everything comes together and I realized that the whole track had been shaped around the rhythm and cadence of the sample made me very happy. Moving onto the second disc, things get a bit harder, with 180db_ reminding me a little bit of Quoth, and CIRCOLONT6A (syrobonkus mix) and CIRCOLONT14 (shrymoming mix) both being pleasingly upbeat (the exception is the 58 second-long time-stretched-vocal interlude of fz pseudotimestretch+e+3). The third disc opens with the syncopated glitches of syro u473t8+e, follows them up with two rather excellent tracks of Hangable Autobulb-style drill’n’bass. The final a piano number (which he debuted in the Barbican show where he swung a player piano over the stage on a trapeze, of course) which inevitably recalls the Satie-esque numbers on Drukqs — except that there was nothing on there that was quite this warm and delicate and alien all at the same time. Plus, this has sampled birdsong and it’s title, aisatsana, is his wife’s name backward. Does this mean that the grumpy sod (who talks proudly in interviews of his kid’s hacking skills) has finally mellowed? I don’t know. But if he’s back to making music this good, I don’t mind.

I bought this from Bleep. They call it Electronic and Electronica.

Autechre: Exai (CD, Warp, February 2013)

Shortly after buying this, I got an email saying that they’d discovered a glitch in the 24-bit WAV download of the track T ess xi. I’m afraid to say, my reaction echoed that of Dorothy Parker on hearing of the death of Calvin Coolidge: how can they tell? (I say this from a place of love.)

The first thing to notice about Exai is that it is a little over two hours long. As is their habit, Rochdale’s finest reject anything approximating a traditional structure, and make countless abrupt changes in direction, with a logic so skewed that it’s pretty much indistinguishable from chance. Consequently, I find it pretty much impossible to take in this album as a whole: it works as a kind of immersive experience, but I can’t put it into words. For the purposes of these notes, therefore, I’m going to employ a kind of critical synecdoche, and talk about just one track: for no particular reason, I’m opting for irlite (get 0). So. It starts with a kind of backwards-funky bass squelch, in which the rhythm drops out moments before the resolution. There is an extended glitch work-out, which (as I have remarked of their work before) seems to be the opposite of propulsive, an assemblage of elements where somehow everything lags behind everything else. There seems to be more low-end than Autechre have had in a while: I find myself wondering whether they are actually being a tiny bit on-trend here? Halfway through, everything fades away to leave a hollow ringing tone. We get an alternate version of the intro again. And then, lo and behold, we get something which is undeniably a melody. Somewhere in the distance, creeping out between those rumbling polyrhythms there’s a little lost ’80s synth pop tune, quite cheerfully going about it’s business. And then, ten minutes in, and without warning, it stops. And the next track starts. Well, I’m not sure that made sense, but somehow I can’t help coming back to listen to it over and over again, so it must be doing something right.

I bought this from Bleep.

Harmonic 313: When Machines Exceed Human Intelligence (CD, Warp, January 2009)

I think that Mark Pritchard was having a good deal of fun making this. Which is good, because I find it a good deal of fun to listen to, too. The first thing that strikes me are the big, throbbing, wobbly bass notes. Not always a good sign for me (I never quite got dubstep), but here there is so much else going on: crunchy and intricate beats, IDMish syncopation, old-skool synths, occasional bits of lo-fi sound collage, floaty almost ambient interludes which don’t lose the record’s focus, some high quality rapping from Phat Kat & Elzhi on one track, clever use of a good old Speak & Spell on another. None of these elements are revolutionary in themselves, but they are deftly assembled, with a refreshing lightness of touch, and to this ageing Warp fan they add up to a very satisfying (and satisfyingly buzzy) whole.

I bought it from Boomkat. They describe it as Beats / Downtempo / Wonky.