Electronic producers don’t tend to have a “mature” period. If they do, it’s a fleeting moment in their mid-20s, before times change and the aesthetic rug is whipped out from under them. Fine artists, filmmakers, novelists: most people who make art are expected to develop their craft over the course of a lifetime. But in pop music – and particularly its upstart younger sibling, dance music — you’re a has-been by the age of 35.
Which makes Richard D. James positively prehistoric. Now in his mid-40s, James belongs to a privileged category of producers whose career has extended into middle age. The recent Caustic Window bonanza showed that many people still care about this ‘90s phenom (not to mention that some of them are very rich), and James has since lowered the barrier between himself and his fans, offering up all manner of archival gems. But last year’s Syro, the first Aphex Twin album in over a decade, showed that James wasn’t just trading on past glories. His music might be taken as gospel, but it continues to grow and change according to its own strange imperatives.
This time around, though, something’s different. As with many young and brilliant artists, Aphex Twin in the ‘90s was all about questioning fundamentals: looking at the way things were, and asking why they couldn’t be different. He reassembled Detroit techno and Chicago house, putting surreal kinks in the architecture; he faced down everything from UK hardcore (‘Didgeridoo’) to electro-pop (‘Windowlicker’), and spun jungle into his own unique vernacular, sometimes obscene, sometimes charmingly naive. Beauty and virtuoso technique came into it, of course, but so did mischief, confusion and the thrill of the uncanny.
Syro felt like the work of someone who has long since grown out of these youthful exertions. It was certainly a better album than 2001’s patchy Drukqs, and more ambitious than The Tuss and the Analord series – ‘00s projects which kept the Aphex project idling in low gear. But its sophistication was turned inwards. Its dizzying arrangements and slick, rubbery sonics referred, above all, to other Aphex Twin releases, but often succeeded in one-upping those releases in terms of clarity and flair. It was a colourful, endlessly absorbing environment, and a closed one.
James has described Syro as the “end of a chapter”, a “psychological dividing line” between the style he has explored over the past decade and something new. Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt2 is the first sign of what that new thing might be. As the title suggests, its conceit is to use acoustic instruments controlled by electro-mechanical means: MIDI pipe organs, Disklavier pianos, robot drummers. It’s as if James has finally found the missing link between two warring species, the convulsive electronica and folkish studies for piano which, on Drukqs, struggled to reach a compromise.
As such, it sometimes sounds like he’s settling unfinished business. The pretty ‘piano un10 it happened’ could easily be a Drukqs offcut; ‘piano un1 arpej‘ expands on the same formula, trading Satie-style tinklings for a manicured cadence out of, say, Schubert, snipped from its moorings and spirited into the night. Unresolved harmonies hang teasingly in the air, before an arpeggio scuttles up from below, just slightly faster than any two hands could manage. It’s this uncanny aspect – the idea of ‘human’ instruments doing faintly inhuman things – which holds the EP’s promise. But James never really follows it through.
Instead, his bizarre robot band plays from a familiar songsheet. The most developed tracks – ‘diskhat ALL prepared1mixed 13’ foremost among them – are as juicy as anything on Syro, and equally lacking in surprises. ‘hat5c 0001 rec-4’ is darker and duller, while elsewhere the instruments split off into fragmentary combos. Most of the EP’s 13 tracks are little more than scraps of ideas: a weirdo hip-hop break here (‘diskhat2’), some plodding gamelan pastiche there (‘disk prep calrec 2 barn dance [slo]’). The 20 second ‘snar2’ is a laser-precise snaredrum roll captured in isolation. It’s a gorgeous sound, if you like that sort of thing, but one without context or discernible purpose.
Of course, it’s unlikely that James considers Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt2 his latest epic. He’s hinted at there being several other Aphex releases in the pipeline, and this may turn out to be an early footnote in a busy year. But it’s telling that, confronted with such unusual materials, James’s efforts feel staid and a little complacent. Maturity brings self knowledge: you get to know the things you like and the things you don’t, the areas in which you ought to improve and those where it’s pointless trying. Syro showed that this self-knowledge could be a good thing; its followup is a warning that it isn’t always so.