breaks \brāks \ v + chill•out \ chil-aût \ v
In his recent interview with Aphex Twin for Pitchfork, tireless electronic-music scribe Philip Sherburne—who out there writing about this music isn't envious of this guy's writing assignments?—asked the enigmatic and prolific producer if he missed rave culture. His response: "Yeah, I do, actually." Aphex Twin, known under many aliases including his birth name Richard D. James, goes on to mourn the loss of a time when underground scenes were able to mature organically, a time in dance music that wasn't one never-ending festival mud pit bathed in neon and littered with the baggies candy kids were told contained Molly.
Ok, so this last bit is purely a reflection of my own feelings, but I suspect I'm not alone, and sentiment James expresses about the Internet-As-Great-Equalizer and the effect its had on this music has resonated with me long before he articulated it. I also suspect that's why James' latest record, Syro, his first in 13 years (out now on Warp), has instantly become such a beloved release amongst music writers like myself and most of my peers. It simultaneously takes us back to a time in dance music before the global domination when it felt like music from the future (or another planet as James refers to it): unknown, experimental, rogue and endlessly exciting.
While I do still have all these same feelings for electronic music today, the senses have dulled with age—at least until records like this come along. Syro is 100% Richard D. James and yet idiosyncratically this new entity, as a whole and often from track to track and minute to minute. It's almost as if the years since the release of Drukqs have helped James to cohere its brighter moments, assimilate its melodic high water marks and generally temper its juxtapositions into a tighter, more complete vision for Aphex Twin today.
Or given this man's restless desire to innovate, maybe none of these things is true. Maybe he's never looked back in the the near decade and a half and that's inadvertently spurred on this triumphant return to form with a record that is as brilliant for the zig-zagged celestial breaks of "XMAS_EVET10 (Thanaton 3 mix)" and the hyperactive 8bit fusion funk of "CIRCLONT14 (Shrymoming mix)" as it is for the fact that it flies in the face of just about everything contemporary in electronic music. It's possibly just the singular statement Aphex Twin fans have been hoping for all this time, a balanced mix of the beautiful, melodic, ambient, disjointed, schizophrenic, spastic and disturbing elements that makes Aphex Twin so compelling and so unlike any other producer out there—in his hey day in the '90s and even more so today.
That's not to say every moment is pure bliss. I prefer the soothing chirp-prog jam of "Syro u473t8+e (Piezoluminescence Mix)," with its new age synths chiming and static bass skating in unrelenting staccato, to the thumping electro-breaks and screaming strings of "180db_," which jars me out of spellbound state with every repeat listen. But that's a minor complaint when it's stacked up against a twisted Aphex-gone-hip-hop head nodder like "Produk 29," with its wobbly synth chords and twisted and brilliantly Aphex-ian sample of some bitchy girl, well, bitching about another girl at a club.
Even album closer, the critically adored "Aisatsana," which leaves us with nothing more than solo piano I imagine being played to a pristine Scottish sunrise by a window that's letting in the first light of day and the sound of birds chirping their morning song in accompaniment, is so unlike the previous 60 minutes of listening, so unlike—and superior to—the solo piano movements of Drukqs and so unlike anything being released in clubland today that its inclusion serves as the perfect reminder of the unexpected pleasure that comes from this music when it pushes boundaries the way artists like Richard D. James can.
James has said in interviews this month that Syro collects material from the past six or seven years of studio sessions, but I prefer to think that the kinetic breaks and ambient waves captured here were recorded and released right now to jog our collective memory for just how far this music can go and why it brought us all here in the first place.