In 2001, Aphex Twin’s Richard D James and I met in anechoic chamber — his suggestion — in the Elephant and Castle neighborhood of London. This particular chamber, designed to absorb as much sound as possible, was located across the road from his house at the time, a four-story bank that has since been knocked down and replaced with a block of flats. The electronic music innovator had just released Drukqs, his first album in five years, though two breakthrough singles (’97′s “Come to Daddy” and ’99′s “Windowlicker”) had effectively made him an international pop star a few years prior. As the long intervals between albums have suggested, he was wary of the spotlight. “I don’t actually like sharing my music with anyone. It bothers me a lot,” he said then. “I make it for myself and occasionally for mates and I’d rather not release it. These tracks, they’re really like your babies and then you have to share them. I don’t like it at all.”
The 13 years that have passed since have been long for Aphex Twin fans, especially given electronic music’s reliance on technology and the quickness with which it changes. (Drukqs was released the day before the launch of Apple’s first iPod.) And while James has reemerged as a producer, releasing around 50 tracks under his AFX and Tuss aliases on his own Rephlex imprint, his fans have waited patiently for another proper Aphex Twin full-length. That said, when Syro drops on Sept 23 via Warp, it arrives with the nearly crippling, colossal weight of expectation — it’s arguably the label’s biggest release in its 25 years.
Accordingly, Syro has been kept under close guard by the label. In mid August, we went to an exclusive first listening of the release at Warp’s North London headquarters not knowing what to expect. How could James’ most notable moniker, one whose music meant so much to so many, satisfy everyone? He can’t, obviously. Like he told me so many years before, the best that he can do is please himself. And from our first listen to Syro, it sounds as if he’s having a pretty good time of it.
1. “minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]“
Where track titles on Drukqs made reference to James’ family and his Cornish roots, most here read like cold, coded gibberish — perversely impersonal. We’ve heard this one before: It’s on YouTube as “the Manchester track” and it has a Tuss-like vibe, wherein James’ beloved funk breaks morph into a loose disco shuffle as he tastefully layers choral passages over gurgling synths. He’s warming up, perhaps, reminding us what he can do.
2. “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]“
This is more like it — if by “it” you’re after something with the emotional resonance of a vintage Analogue Bubblebath cut. Dubbed “the Metz track” online following its appearance in a 2010 DJ set in the French city by the same name, the track is 10 minutes of melancholic melody and rolling percussion that unfolds quite gracefully. (Think James Stinson’s post-Drexciya projects, Transllusion or The Other People Place.) A fan favorite before it had even been released.
3. “produk 29 “
What starts as a queasy-listening funk jamboree – I’m reminded of Mike Paradinas’ mid ’90s acid jazz alter-ego Jake Slazenger – unravels into lucid, ketamine-fuelled chaos. Snippets of phased and flanged conversation swirl over something that sounds like a spy-film funk break. “We were in that club,” a female voice says at one point, before referring to someone as “a fucking whore” a couple of times. Maybe things are getting personal, after all.
4. “4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26]“
The track is as remarkable as its title. At this point, James seems to have settled into his dexterous synth-funk groove; this sort of jazzy Tuss routine proceeds to dominate much of Syro. Having left London in 2007, relocating to home studios in Cornwall and Scotland, this is James flexing his muscles and technique in his new domain.
5. “180db_ “
Aphex is still very much a raver at heart. Though he hasn’t played live since 1997, he loves making people dance and seeing them lose their minds to the music he DJs. “I want people to get buzzed up, get excited,” he said when I spoke to him in 2001. “180db_” is a blizzard of junglist breaks and stuttering, curdled melody; the type of track that would be effective in doing so in one of his peak-time sets.
6. “CIRCLONT6A [141.98][syrobonkus mix]“
There are shades of those extended pick ‘n’ mix work-outs from Drukqs here as James dashes through an Aphex checklist of tone-drones, bleeps and squelches, each perfectly mangled.
7. “fz pseudotimestretch+e+3 [138.85]“
Will there be a “Windowlicker” on Syro? The shimmering melody that opens “fz pseudotimestretch+e+3 [138.85]” suggests the Aphex pop song might have arrived — but it fades out in under a minute, like a shooting star evaporating into the night.
8. “CIRCLONT14 [152.97][shrymoming mix]“
This plays out like another high-octane, sci-fi jazz romp in the vein of James’ one-time sparring partner Squarepusher. (Note: I wrote the words “lush alien vox bit” in my notebook for this one.)
9. “syro u473t8+e [141.98][piezoluminescence mix]“
James has said that his family will crop up on Syro. Could the female voice that introduces this track in a foreign language be James’ Russian wife? The track introduces another sequence of tough, Tuss funk that showcases his outrageous production capability. Hip-hop breaks boom and echo.
10. “PAPAT4 [pineal mix]“
An album highlight, and not only because its goofy, succulent riff recalls the chintzy melody of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time.” “PAPAT4 [pineal mix]” finds James in dazzling form, rushing through dub reggae and musique concrète with breathtaking dexterity. That the song collapses in on itself in a flurry of drill ‘n’ bass is, at this stage, par for the course.
11. “s950tx16wasr10 [163.97][earth portal mix]“
Jungle steppin’ is now at a frantic pace, as Aphex speeds towards the album’s close. By now, the hopes that he will shoot off on some wild new trajectory on Syro are fading. Still, he’s hitting on some impressive variety even at such high velocity, and this is an exhilarating, pulsating ride.
12. “aisatsana “
The album’s finale is the pretty solo piano piece James debuted at London’s Barbican in October 2012. (The event that became notable after James swung a grand piano from the roof of the theatre like a giant pendulum.) The song is a soothing piece reminiscent of the minimal compositions of Erik Satie; it rolls out softly over distant bird song. A point of trivia: “Aisatsana” is also the name of his wife spelled backwards.
And that’s the end. One play of Syro is certainly not enough time to fully appreciate this rich and often thrilling record. But there’s plenty here for admirers to discuss, dissect and gorge on. Some will hate it, some will be bewildered; but in the end it’s undeniable that James is still working in the gaps, making music that sounds like nothing and no one else.