“Well done the Aphex Twin”: first thoughts on Syro
Unless you’ve been trapped in a bio-dome somewhere in outer space for the last few weeks, you’re probably well aware that Richard D. James’ first Aphex Twin album in 13 years is finally about to land.
To say that Syro has been massively anticipated would be an understatement, and among the fans eager to spin the album was FACT’s own Joe Muggs. Thankfully, he got the chance to have an early listen, and devoured it whole – alongside a family-sized bag of Sainsburys Onion Rings (tipped into a bowl, he’s not an animal after all).
Now the embargo’s been lifted on reviews, we can finally reveal why Joe’s had a spring in his step ever since.
01 ‘minipops 67 (source field mix)’
OK you’ve heard this one now, but first thought best thought and all that… Straight off the bat, this feels like a statement that this isn’t an awkward record. OK, it says, there you go, that’s a funk beat. It’s a really spanky, mid-tempo breakbeat, that you could dance to. Then all the other elements come in, and it’s all really lovely mid-90s groove up – there’s stuff in this that wouldn’t be out of place in an Orbital track – but delivered with the sort of breakbeat edits that only RDJ can do, and a crispness of production and complexity of arrangement that stop it being a throwback. It feels like he’s taken up precisely where he left off with ‘Windowlicker’ – but there are none of the sudden left-turns and wig outs of that track… which in itself makes it disconcerting as you’re left permanently going “where’s the catch?” There isn’t a catch, though: this is fun, funky Aphex Twin with a rich layering of stuff going on that suggests it won’t wear thin on repeat listens. And there’s a vocoder. Well, you don’t begrudge him going after some Random Access Memories dollars, do you?
02 ‘XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix)’
Ooh dramatic. This one’s got a right moody intro, then into spooky minor chords and another proper funk drumbeat: it’s the full Stubblefield in fact, a proper roller. It’s like RDJ is remembering his feel for black music, which he always had going right back to Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which had a facility for the rhythmic mechanisms of both OG house and hip hop that was head and shoulders above his contemporaries. Then the acid line comes in, and bugger me if it doesn’t sound like something from the Isley Brothers or Stevie wonder. Is this going to be Aphex’s funk album? Those minor chords have all the ambiguity of a good soul record – bliss and melancholy superimposed in the same space. And are those BONGOS? This is still IDM, it’s still flagrantly Aphex, but again, it’s fascinating how little he’s fucking about and how much he’s following musical ideas through to their logical conclusions. Lovely track – goes on a bit though.
03 ‘produk 29’
Glossy! This one’s Vangelis-tastic, a sci-fi floater – an absolute throwback to a past when there was a future, and sexy android voices were cool. This is the first time when there are points where you feel maybe it could’ve been made by someone else – Plaid, say – but those are brief points, then each time there’ll be an edit, a tweak or a gurgle that’s all Aphex.
04 ‘4 bit 9d api+e+6’
The acid is really kicking in now, RDJ showing that he can do that swoop and slurp in synth sounds like nobody else with a big fat chattering square wave bassline. It’s always been that onomatopaeic, glossolallic, synaesthesic trip-out ability with sound creation which has saved him from being either clever-clever or decorative, and that’s still the case.
Bit of a swagger here: this one’s got the confidence to roll with nothing more than the main riff, which is fuzzy and buzzy, and four-to-the-floor kick drum for large sections. It’s the first blatant dancefloor track of the record – bit of a shame it’s ironically the shortest one too, as it feels like it could quite happily just jam on for an age, especially after the straight beat turns into a break not a million miles from the Baby Ford ‘Helston Flora Remix’.
06 ‘CIRCLONT6A (syrobonkus mix)’
Tempo ramps up and this takes off nicely from the last one with equally buzzy layered leads and a choppy, jittery beat. He’s well in his comfort zone for most of this, but then it builds up into a pretty hectic cacophony, which is fun.
07 ‘fz pseudotimestretch+e+3’
A little detuned ambient-y, guitar-y-sounding miniature. Nice.
08 ‘CIRCLONT14 (shrymoming mix)’
The ambient intro to this one is definitely the most straight-to-the-nervous-system brilliant thing yet – and probably the first thing that’ll please the real sour old snobs who just want him to do Selected Ambient Works-style stuff. Then in comes – yep of course – more spankily edited breakbeats and more acid, plus some fantastic floating wah-wah chords and sinister whispered and chanted voices. Actually the chants are dead sinister, like something from late period Coil. In the middle the track breaks down to drums and an acid noodle so prog-fusion it could actually be Tom Jenkinson. The freakiest and most memorable track yet.
09 ‘syro u473t8+e (piezoluminescence mix)’
Back to the funk. It’s breaks and acid again, but the acid is kept bassy, simple and twangy, and there’s a TON of adrenaline in this one. In fact this one takes the Stevie Wonder vibes to extremes – it’s deeply, deeply vibey – but then some heart-stopping Detroit-y high string-synth stuff comes in later that makes it into a really complete track rather than just a groove. This sounds like it must’ve been massively satisfying to make, and it’s a top tune by just about any standards.
10 ‘PAPAT4 (pineal mix)’
Errr, breaks and acid? Yeah of course. This one’s the most retro, totally in Analogue Bubblebath territory with the synths, and the raviest track yet on the drums. Album feels like it might be going on a bit long now – ‘s good though. Some seriously amazing ‘hovering entity’ sci-fi chords at one point.
11 ‘s950tx16wasr10 (earth portal mix)’
Comedy jungle breaks/edits/timestretch and some twinkly chimes. Full of really head-scrambling trip-outs. Is this track really necessary, or should it have been an EP track or something? At this stage it’s getting very hard to tell, because it’s all a bit overload. On a very few listens to an album with this much going on in it, there’s no way to predict how it’ll sound after a lot of listens. I think it will get a lot of listens, though.
It’s an ambient piano outro. It’s utterly stunning. This is a really good album with about five instant classics on it and some other very fine stuff too. Well done the Aphex Twin.
More of the Aphex Twin!
– Stream Aphex Twin’s lost Caustic Window album in full
– Watch a bizarre Aphex Twin interview from 1994
– The facts and fictions of Aphex Twin’s mythology
– The 50 best Aphex Twin tracks