APHEX TWIN: CHEETAH (2016)
1) CHEETAHT2 [LD Spectrum]; 2) CHEETAHT7b; 3) CHEETA1b ms800; 4) CHEETA2 ms800; 5) CIRKLON3 [Колхозная mix]; 6) CIRKLON 1; 7) 2X202-ST5.
It is absurd, I know, and probably a coincidence, but why is it that when an Aphex Twin release only claims to be inspired by a retro device, it still turns out to be the most interesting and engaging release from the artist in more than a decade? The Cheetah MS800 was a digital synthesizer developed and briefly marketed by UK's Cheetah Marketing in the 1980s, and is typically called one of the worst-sounding and most complex and befuddling synths to ever exist — hence the reference, although, if I am correct, Richard D. James never goes as far as to actually haul out one of those old relics and give it a try, he just brings up the name so that every single reviewer in existence, myself included, could go, «oh, how appropriate, a title referring to one of the most bizarre electronic devices for one of the most bizarre electronic artists».
But somehow, really, CHEETAH is fun! An EP, technically, though still more than half an hour in length, it is radically different from the cluttered, over-spasmodic, blurry stuff we'd had from Mr. D. lately (yeah, looking at you, SYRO) — here, the man goes for a tight, tense, and minimalistic approach instead, concentrating on the drum-'n'-bass rhythm first and adding a few extra flourishes at the last moment. The result is that much of this does indeed sound a bit like an old arcade soundtrack, but a thoughtful one, where the music is expressly written to mimic the action on screen; and by making the beats relatively simple and the bass lines loud and deep, he allows the brain to focus tighter on what's going on and, perhaps, even to store a part of it.
The very first track... by the way, I'm not going to retype these titles, thank you very much; I've had enough of that crap with Autechre releases — my only question, which nobody seems to have an answer for, is what the hell is meant by "Колхозная mix" (track 5)? "Колхозная" is the correct Cyrillic spelling for Kolkhoznaya, the name of several streets / stations in various Russian cities (derived from kolkhoz, of course), but I have no info on any electronic teams, studios, art-projects, DJs, etc., that would go by that name. Did the guy just select a random Cyrillic word from a random text or what?.. Anyway, the very first track (which is not the Колхозная mix, but something else with a lot of letters and numbers) begins by establishing a good old ominous groove — relentless percussion, grim bass punches, cloud-gathering synths deep in the background — against which a simple lead melody keeps making a threatening descending dive-bomb, and somehow it is immediately more effective than if he'd stuff the opening with a dozen beep-and-bleep overdubs and a mega-poly-rhythmic set of beats that only a ten-headed alien could easily identify and empathize with.
The second track almost sounds like some good old-fashioned electro-pop (give it to Quincy Jones for a few moments and you can have yourself a solid rhythm track, awaiting the reincarnation of Michael Jackson), eventually adding a mystery component with harpsichord-like «secret chamber tones» and funny tapping runs from percussive bass / bass percussion. There's an odd soothing, rather than irritating, feel about this music, probably because of the muffled, glossed-over effect on all the parts that internalizes the feeling rather than externalizes it — I really love what he's doing with the production, creating music that is much more fit for taking in at home, in an enclosed space, rather than in some action-packed dance club.
Later on, ideas (or at least approaches) begin repeating themselves, but the record does not overstay its welcome — it gives you two more very short interludes (one sounds like your on-screen sprite is trying to zig-zag his way through a perilous swamp and the other finds him walking into cloudy dreamland) and three more IDM tracks, all of which have their enjoyable moments: the funky bass groove on ʽКолхозная mixʼ, the quasi-jazzy «piano» «improvisations» on the next one, and yet another superb bass groove on the last track — my only wish is to hear some of these, some day, played by real jazzmen on real instruments, which would have been even more awesome (no, I mean, really, just close your eyes and imagine that last track handled by a couple of real jazz-fusion pros on drums and bass... eh?). But then, what do I know, electronic music is still the future and all that. At the very least, I do know that the old windowlicker is not quite out of ideas yet, and that this latest attempt to go for a stripped-down sound is a much welcome change, well worth an honest thumbs up, despite the brevity.