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Saturday, October 9, 2010

Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works Volume II


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


  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.