APHEX TWIN: SYRO (2014)
1) Minipops 67 (Source Field mix); 2) XMAS_EVET10 (Thanaton3 mix); 3) Produk 29; 4) 4 Bit 9d Api+e+6; 5) 180db_; 6) CIRCLONT6A (Syrobonkus mix); 7) Fz Pseudotimestretch+e+3; 8) CIRCLONT14 (Shrymoming mix); 9) Syro U473t8+e (Piezoluminescence mix); 10) PAPAT4 (Pineal mix); 11) S950tx16wasr10 (Earth Portal mix); 12) Aisatsana.
Let us meet a few conditions. First, you are Richard D. James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin. Second, you have not had a «proper» new long-playing album out in thirteen years. Third, your latest album features you not dicking around without a head on your shoulders, but actually diligently doing your thing. Fourth, you put a receipt that details the complete production costs of your album on its front cover. With all these conditions met, how could SYRO be released to anything other than universal acclaim on the part of critics and veteran fans alike?
However, since this here site is known to operate under a strict «no-bull» policy, I would like to try and assess the values and virtues of this record as if that thirteen-year gap never existed. If you remember, Richard's last proper LP, DrukQs, was met with a relatively lukewarm reception — sometimes branded as too long, sometimes as too monotonous, sometimes as too unjustly focused on electronic percussion, overall, not one of his better efforts. Now what would have been the reception for SYRO, had it come out in 2002 instead of 2014? If we didn't all have to wait that long, begging The Master to please please please come back, and show us the way?
I had to actually go back and refresh some of the «classic» Aphex Twin numbers, from ʽGreen Calxʼ all the way down to ʽCome To Daddyʼ, in order to understand why my senses could only perceive SYRO as one large, unterminable, irritating bore. It is better than DrukQs, for sure, if only because the emphasis has been shifted away from fussy funky percussion and put back on tonal sounds — Richard D. James may be a master of his own groove, but his best work had always had a positively melodic side to it. However, calling SYRO a «melodic» album would clash way too hard with my naïve world view, and I won't do it.
Where some of Richard's work used to be awesomely otherworldly, and some of his other work used to be hilariously nightmarish, and some of his other work just made you stop right there and think «I have no idea what this ʽmeansʼ, but it sounds so different and so cool, why hasn't anybody else thought of that before?», SYRO does none of these things to me. Predictably, it is complex (and made even more complex by the frequent use of processed vocal overdubs), it is «intelligently danceable», and it even makes an effort to be diverse, but (a) there is really nothing here the likes of which we hadn't heard before, be it from Richard himself or from a gazillion of his electronic followers, and (b) more importantly, these tracks do a fairly poor job of converting themselves into lasting impressions, or even short-lived impressions, for that matter.
Perhaps it is the fault of the production, which fails to give these tunes the required depth: just as it was on DrukQs, it all just sounds like an extended soundtrack to a generic video game, and even good headphones do not particularly help out to perceive anything breathtaking about these loops and ambient flourishes. But a much more likely solution is that the man is simply no longer driven by the fresh excitement of exploring uncharted waters, which was there in the 1980s and in the 1990s. «Exploration» is now reduced to «desperation», that is to say, silly gimmicks that serve as mental bookmarks rather than anything else — «ʽCIRCLONT14ʼ? Oh, you mean the one where they wispily chant no-so-chkeeee, no-so-chkeeee, no-so-chkeeee all the way through?» (For the record, nosochki literally means ʽlittle socksʼ in Russian, and this is hardly a phonetic coincidence, since there are other Russian phrases occasionally scattered in the mixes as well — a 25th-frame-type trick, no doubt about that; Her Majesty's Secret Service should probably start investigating whether the man has been put on Putin's secret payroll).
Naturally, it would be illogical to expect the man — not just after such a long break per se, but after a long break during which his electronic feats and wonders, once upon a time a jawdropping force like no other, have become a normal part of our collective conscious — it would be illogical to expect him to have the power to stun the world once more. Electronic wonders are as much of a rarity these days as any other type of wonders, and adventurousness and artistic flexibility do tend to decrease with age even if we're talking of geniuses. Yet, on the other hand, after such a long break, neither did I quite expect this former Napoleon to meet his musical Waterloo, no matter how many important critics will try their best to convince you that it is really his musical Austerlitz. Not «revolutionary», no, but gimme some emotion/impression/revelation, whatever. And no, nosochki does not count. And I don't play any video games these days, either.
One hour into this mess comes ʽAisatsanaʼ, the quiet ambient conclusion — a five-note piano phrase repeated over and over, sometimes with minor variations, pretending to long to be resolved until it finally is resolved with a couple extra chords at the end. Somehow, it seems to me to be symbolic of this entire album — a lengthy search for self-expression, pretending to be carried out on several different paths but really mainly following the same unoriginal, tired direction, and finally pretending to have reached its goal, but there never really was a goal. The whole thing is just boring, meaningless, and tedious, and if it took Mr. James thirteen years to come up with that, well, he might just spend the rest of his days growing vegetables as far as I'm concerned.
Seeing as how so many people give out radiant-glowing reviews to SYRO — even though I have not been able to find even a single one that would illuminate me on what exactly I have missed here — I do feel a responsibility to warn you not to take my rather vicious thumbs down at face value, and go and check it out for yourselves. Nevertheless, most of this review was written in a cool-calm-collected state and reflects my genuine feelings (or, rather, lack thereof) towards the album, so I am not just trying out a contrarian approach or anything. In the end, I guess we'll just have to wait until the Heroic Aureole wears off our hero a little bit, and see where SYRO is going to stand, say, in twenty or thirty years time, provided the world will last that long.