Richard James may not be any monkey with a sampler, but the unstructured aspect of the twiddly wallpaper records and forceful rhythm commands the ambient techno auteur has created and issued under a multitude of names makes him (if no more so than other avatars of the genres) seem like something less than a serious artist to those stuck with obsolete expectations of the music they consume. Still, it’s fascinating how such a functionally minded idiom as dance music could be the catalyst by which such anti-participation sounds were able to leap from scorned proximity to Muzak and gain cutting-edge credibility (if not intimidating trendiness) as drug/trance zone-out art and skittering beat hallucinations. Times, and perceptions, do change.
Since emerging from his Cornwall bedroom to partake of the rave culture as a DJ (moving to London to launch himself as a musician), James has been the very model of the modern young egghead with his finger on the electronic pulse. While the gentler end of his vocal — less sonic ablutions has earned him ambient comparisons to Brian Eno, there’s a stronger visceral component to James’ work: still in his early twenties, he has not yet lost his connection to the dancefloor. When he means to rock the party, he does so with prodigious power, but even when on a more cerebral plane, he sets the pulse of his productions racing with a shade more energy, playful imagination and organized rhythmic force than other techno grads-cum-soundscapers. In other words, he’s a far more striking breed of bore. Like many of his peers, James is far too prolific for casual consideration. Not counting outside production and remix work, his discography is an international morass of releases as the Aphex Twin, AFX, Polygon Window, Metapharstic, Caustic Window, Joyrex, Blue Calx, the Dice Man, etc. His American releases, however, have not been many.
The Analogue Bubblebath EP (1991) contains formative efforts that are more routine techno than escapist ambient: aggressively sequenced dance rhythms underpin the synthesized squonks, plonks and samples. “Isopropophlex” is especially collar-grabbing in a most non-atmospheric manner. The On EP leans into a balance of insistent beat-itude, pop formalism and ancillary sonic action: the title track (also offered in a soft, billowy remix) sets a busily tinkling piano figure working against meteorological events and other samples in what almost sounds like a concession to chart-pop catchiness. The other two tracks on the disc jump into jungle skitter with predictably unsettling don’t-sit-down-don’t-move spasmodic results.
Selected Ambient Works Volume II is, good to its title, concertedly and consistently mood-setting. The slices of subtle delicacy meander gracefully in clearly conceptualized pathways where very little happens. The Aphex Twin’s work here travels without arriving, yet he invariably makes it a pleasant journey with pretty audio scenery. Two discs of this stuff ask a lot of the listener, but none of it is so distracting that it would interfere with other activities-like, say, listening to music. Classics compiles much of the early R&S material, including the complete Didgeridoo and Xylem Tube EPs (eight tracks in all), plus five more studio numbers and a live version of “Didgeridoo.”
…I Care Because You Do starts out with a slow drum pattern, squiggly synth fillips and friendly organ chords in “Acrid Avid Jam Shred,” but soon revs up into the harsh thicket of frenzied jungle beats. James thoughtfully introduces other elements into the mix — keyboard strains, ricocheting sequencer tones, an ear-splitting whistle, dramatic strings, spoken bits — but by “Start as You Mean to Go On” (the first song on the non-literal Side 3), the Aphex Twin is in full calamitous gear, leaving room for nothing but mute heart-pounding submission. (Or instantaneous push-button escape.) The album calms down after that-“Alberto Balsalm” is seductively light in tone and tempo-and concludes in most enigmatic fashion with a very natural sounding and percussion-free orchestral fugue, “Next Heap With.” Oh that Aphex boy!
Expert Knob Twiddlers is James’ collaboration with Michael Paradinas, the techie also known as µ-Ziq.