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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works 85-92


1) Xtal; 2) Tha; 3) Pulsewidth; 4) Ageispolis; 5) I; 6) Green Calx; 7) Heliosphan; 8) We Are The Music Makers; 9) Schottkey 7th Path; 10) Ptolemy; 11) Hedphelym; 12) Delphium; 13) Actium.

Musical genre names do not get much sillier than «IDM». Where does one draw the line between «intelligence» and its opposite (say, «dumbness») in dance music? So let us assume that the ave­rage nameless techno rave at your local club, say, three or four notes looped ad infinitum with a minimum of pitch and tone mutations counting as «development» is «dumb dance music», as op­posed to the «intelligent» works of Richard D. James. But just where exactly do we draw the line? And what about history? How come we apply the moniker of IDM to Nineties' electronica? Isn't Prince supposed to be IDM? The early Beatles? Chuck Berry? Johann Strauss, Sr.?..

Pangaeian reverence does not get much stranger than the pedestal established for Aphex Twin and, in particular, this album, critically acknowledged as his masterwork. If anything, it mostly goes to show how deep in the ground all the talentless people had managed to bury the classic achievements of Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, and Klaus Schulze by the end of the Eighties that it took somebody like Richard D. James to dig 'em up, give 'em a good dusting, mo­dernize them with techno beats and, in the process, become a worshipped trendsetter.

Now it has to be made clear that, by any possible standard established in the vast jungle world of Electronica, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is a damn good album. The title seems a bit suspi­cious, not just for the well-noted fact that, if «85-92» is to be believed, James must have recorded some of these tracks when he was 13 years old (he is not trumping W. A. Mozart in any case), but also for the fact that the whole record does not at all sound like a collection of disjointed outtakes — on the contrary, it has a conceptual solidity, meaning that he either had the whole idea already fleshed out in 1985, or just hoaxed us all. (It is also very notably different from his first EP, Dige­ridoo, released only a year before and focusing far more on hardcore techno and synth fart noi­ses — not recommendable unless you're one of those hopeless electronica freaks who regards elec­tric guitars on the same plane with stone choppers).

The «melodies» of Aphex Twin are by no means as «intelligent» as the odd label of IDM would suggest. Take a minimalistic keyboard pattern, along the lines of one of Brian Eno's typical ambi­ent records, add a few equally minimalistic «noisy» synth backgrounds, and you've got it made; the only thing that remains is to make it rhythmic (and here, actually, James has to be given credit: his percussion textures, even if mostly following the four-on-the-floor principle, are pretty di­verse, with no two tracks given the exact same rhythm contour). Selected Ambient Works is not a «deceptively simple» album: it is a simple album, period. By the standards of Klaus Schulze, this guy would be like a three-year-old trying to bang out 'Chopsticks' on a piano.

But these are, after all, selected ambient works, not a sprawling electronic symphony honouring King Ludwig of Bavaria. «Ambient» works if and only if it is truly ambient, that is, manages to set up an ambience. And that's one task for which Aphex Twin is quite qualified. From the warm ope­ning sound waves and mysterious, faintly heard shadows of human voices that ride them on 'Xtal', and right down to the ridiculously simple, but captivating interaction of the nine-note key­board riff and the stern funky bassline on 'Actium', these tracks establish, build up, and substanti­alize an individual — not to abuse the term «unique» — universe. You can fantasize about it on the macrocosmic level (asteroids bopping around in space, galaxies forming etc. etc.), or on the microcosmic level (hemoglobin cells traveling through the organism and shit), or on any level you like, it's all open to and well tunable for all interpretations.

Even so, to my ears, James' seventy minutes of techno/house-filtered ambience is just another fine addition to the already huge canon of minimalist music. Its huge influence on the house scene is not something I could be informed enough on to contend, the talent of its maker not some­thing I could be arrogant enough to deny. But the immenseness of its popularity seems to at least have as much to do with the intangible «Zeitgeist» as with its own context-free value. If one were, for instance, to play all of Tangerine Dream's hundred-plus album discography in chrono­logical order, surreptitiously inserting Select Ambient Works around 1992, would it still be able to produce a shock effect on the listener? In other words, just how many people have hailed it as a classic simply because it, along with several other «seminal» works in the same genre, managed to «reboot» the electronica franchise in the early Nineties, serving as a gateway into that par­ticular world for impatient listeners who refused to trust anyone over thirty?

"Selected Ambient Works 85-92", writes a glowing David M. Pecoraro from Pitchfork, "...was the very first elec­tronic music I ever bought, and certainly the first I ever heard over and over again... back then, Aphex Twin was making music like nothing I'd ever heard before... What's become apparent since is that I probably wasn't the only one affected." Then he proceeds to give it a 9.4/10 rating. Sure enough, if you compare it to Nirvana or MTV-era Aerosmith, it definitely sounds like nothing you'd heard before. But if... (see above)?

These are questions that, for some reason, no one ever seems to pose when raving, or not raving, about the album; everybody wants to discuss it on its own, probably because for so many people Aphex Twin was indeed their introduction to the world of electronic music, or, better still, to the world of intelligent electronic music. But I have a nagging feeling that eventually, in between all the major electronic pioneers of the Seventies and all the gradual advances that have been made in the genre ever since, the importance of Selected Ambient Works will fade away, exposing it for what it is: a pleasant otherworldly mood-setter to brighten your evening, no better and no worse than any other pleasant otherworldly mood-setter.

Then again, it should also be noted that Selected Ambient Works need not necessarily be taken as the album that defines Aphex Twin; by no means does it cover all of Richard D. James' versa­tility, importance, and all-around awesomeness. After all, he may have been 13 years old when he created these tracks — and if you can do likewise when you are 13 years old, congratulations, you fall under the same category of dementia.

Check "Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (CD)" on Amazon
Check "Selected Ambient Works 85-92" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. He has better works but has never done anything better than Klaus Schulze.

  2. I wouldn't get to hung up on the IDM label, it isn't well liked even by artists who are IDM. A much more appropriate name (used by Warp Records for their Artificial Intelligence comp.) is "Electronic Listening Music". This was used to distinguish this kind of music as something suitable for sustained home listening, perhaps considered musical analysis, as opposed to the large number club bangers intended only to be danced to, and forgotten (with no disrespect to the surplus of excellent dance music that is available).

  3. I think the "85-92" thing may be less about the songs themselves than some of the raw material used on them - for example, cassette tapes of things like voices or whatever. Considering that James began DJing at something like 15, the possibility of him randomly sampling sounds he liked doesn't sound too far-fetched...

  4. I'd imagine that these songs were originally recorded as demos all the way back to 1985 but re-recorded with up-to-date gear for the album itself.

  5. Of course this album would stick out in that Tangerine Dream experiment, because Tangerine Dream was fucking horrible by 1992. But yeah, this is basically a successful synthesis of house music and Rubycon.