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Saturday, October 9, 2010

Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works Volume II


APHEX TWIN: SELECTED AMBIENT WORKS VOLUME II (1994)

1-12, 14-24) Untitled; 13) Blue Calx.

Now this is what I call ambient — or, more strictly, this is exactly the kind of m... sonic produc­tion for which Brian Eno had coined the term «ambient» once he had felt himself self-assured enough to coin terms. Prior to this, most of Richard D. James' output was grounded in rhythm: not just 85-92, but also the EPs, including the ones recorded under the alias of AFX. His second «proper» long-playing album, then, came off as a big surprise: texture, texture, and again texture way above rhythm, in fact, you might forget about rhythm altogether. According to the genius in his own words, «It's like standing in a power station on acid». Too true. Way too true. (He also claimed that the tracks came to him as lucid dreams, which is harder to believe — just how often does the man have lucid dreams?).

Altogether, there is over 150 minutes of sound on these two CDs, and, like all proper ambient al­bums, this is music to dig into on rare occasions and crash out to on frequent ones. To pretend that I love it would be ridiculous, and to pretend that I solemnly revere it as Art would be... well, pretentious. But it definitely has its own face within the way-often-blurry world of ambient: de­spite most of the tracks leisurely taking their allotted time of six to ten minutes, there's so many of them that the album gets a surprising amount of diversity. Not every «composition» has its own individual tale to tell, but the moods vary greatly, from stately-heavenly to industrially-gro­w­ly to sci-fi-asteroidly. If this is a power station, it's definitely a futuristic one, with power pro­duced in many different ways from many different materials.

Let's illustrate. The first track (by the way, none of the tracks bar 'Blue Calx' are named; each one is simply ac­companied by an image, later transformed conventionally into a spoken/written name by fan con­sensus; first track is 'Cliffs') would not be out of place on a (decent) soundtrack to a (bad) Steven King movie — lightweight, but still menace-containing loops with an odd «child babble» accompaniment. From there, we move to 'Radiator', with monotonous torturous chimes recorded over pssht-pssht noises. Bleeding and infuriating. 'Rhubarb' is J. S. Bach meeting Brian Eno and Richard D. James attempting to decipher stuff from their wastebasket. 'Hankie' is indus­trial pre-catastrophe stuff. Then 'Grass' welcomes you with the first hints of percussion and a general feeling of walking through the empty streets of a post-nuclear city.

As you see, it does not all come together very well, but none of it feels too disjointed, either; as diverse as the moods are, the «ambient» promise is fulfilled — not once does Aphex Twin break out the techno beats. The decision for you as a record buyer is really very easy: if Electronica, for you, is music to move to, this is the most expendable item in the Twin's catalog, but if you appre­ciate it for its power of static ambience, this is the one album to go for.

It is sort of funny to realize that, about a year from then, Richard D. James would have a media­ted opinion exchange with Stockhausen; the latter was asked to listen to an Aphex Twin tape and complained about «post-African repetitions», urging the man to «look for changing tempi and rhythms», upon which the respectable Twin retorted that «he should listen to a couple of tracks of mine, then he'd stop making abstract, random patterns you can't dance to». Obviously, what Karl­heinz was sent was not an excerpt from Ambient Works Volume II — an album that has plenty of repetitions which are, nevertheless, anything but «post-African». Not that the 67-year old com­poser would be capable of «getting» this new generation of machine-prodding whippersnappers, but one thing is for certain: this album puts Mr. James as close to the «old school» of the electro­nic masters as possible.

So close, in fact, that quite a few fans still view it as an arrogant joke, along the ideological (if not sonic) lines of Metal Machine Music. I don't think it was a joke — more like a conscious, maybe even narcissistic, attempt at decidedly singling oneself out of the crowds. Like, how many techno and house artists have ever released a 150-minute collection of rhythmless bleeps and bloops? The staggering audacity of the move by itself is guaranteed to generate extra spice — and then there is always the remote possibility that someone will see God shooting craps within some of these tracks. Or, if not, at least use it as a practical sleeping device.


Check "Selected Ambient Works Volume II" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Selected Ambient Works Volume II" (MP3) on Amazon

2 comments:

  1. Two points of indifference for the two most universally-acclaimed Aphex Twin works? Do you know what you've done?

    Exactly what you should. These two early works are occasionally-pleasant, occasionally-numbing, always-verging-on-nonexistence musical paintings. Overrated, 'Richard D. James Album' is better.

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