On Saturday night, Richard D. James graced Houston, Texas with his first US live performance in eight years. Jonathan Patrick gets rain-soaked in the rave to see if the electronic hero’s return to the stage lives up to the hype.
Downtown Houston looks more futuristic than you might expect. It’s a forest of citadels—all glass, stone, and steel. The humid climate causes the clouds to hang abnormally low, and when the sun sets and the skyscrapers light up, the city looks like a scene ripped straight from Akira. It’s an apt setting for one of the country’s most future-leaning festivals—this year’s Day For Night hosts some of the world’s most celebrated electronic modernists in Oneohtrix Point Never and Arca. It’s also the ideal context for Aphex Twin to perform his first U.S. show in over eight years.
On record, Richard D. James emits a playful, if dauntingly other charge; humor and horror marry, and the effect is as impish as it is challenging—and intensely beautiful. In electronic music, Aphex Twin is revered unlike almost any artist in recent memory, which perhaps explains the twitchy, anxious mood in the crowd as his set begins. There are 11 screens on stage, each displaying the militaristic theme depicted in the trailer for this performance. Piercing red lights spray outward and geysers of fog frame the stage. A grid of lasers ascends hundreds of feet into the sky. Houston’s towering buildings seem to somehow reach up and around the stage, like enormous grasping fingers.
The set starts with eerie, mocking laughter and rumbling sub-bass that could reset an arrhythmia. But there’s no sign of James. The audience seems confused. Is he even going to show? Does he plan to perform the set behind a wall of screens? It wouldn’t be the first time. But then, a few moments later, a camera zooms in above the central screen and there he is: stony expression, with just his disembodied head on show, looking almost the same as he did some 20 years ago. (He looks up from his deck to see the audience just once the entire show).
For those who’ve followed James’ latest output, including this year’s Cheetah EP, what follows is unexpected. For those who’ve experienced or heard about his notoriously dissonant live sets, it’s less unexpected, but no less surprising. In a way it’s typical Aphex Twin: harsh, unruly noises set against delicate, dulcet ones; quiet interludes positioned between blasts of cluttered, fragmented beat programming. But this performance is something more. It’s a legend showing off, and showing that he’s kept up with dance music’s latest innovations.
Every genre seems to make an appearance, even if only for a moment. Drum and bass, techno, trap, IDM, hip-hop, drone, footwork, the sort of shellshocked post-industrial club sounds you’d find in a Total Freedom DJ set, even batida, with the inclusion of a track by DJ Nigga Fox. The first half of the set is noticeably more complex—the type of restlessly percussive compositions you’d associate with The Richard D. James Album or I Care Because You Do—but in the second half he ramps up to a simpler but fiercer and more driving sound, a mood we first encountered some 25 years ago on ‘Digeridoo’.
The split in James’ set isn’t the result of an intended intermission but an act of nature. In a matter of moments the temperature drops around 15 degrees and rain starts to fall. Screens have to be shut off and overhead speakers lowered to avoid damage. It’s cold and it’s wet, but no one leaves. The mood turns into a rave: mosh pits materialize, everybody is jumping or thrusting their hands in the air. This second half of the performance is nothing if not brutal, in essence just bass; sawing, rapid-fire beats seeming to stretch out forever before devolving into glitchy, abstract noodling. James is pressing us, testing our limits and resolve: “How much more can you handle?”
In the final stretch he accelerates harder, reaching a peak amid a shower of convulsing lights and needling dissonance. And just like that, it’s over. For the first time all night, he shows his full self, climbing down from his seat atop the central screen to approach us and flash a double thumbs up, before disappearing backstage. No encore.
So, was it worth the eight-year wait? By turns thrilling and hilarious, it was consistently unpredictable, with 90% more “holy shit” moments than your average concert. But above all, it was the most Aphex Twin-like show you could hope for – very close to perfect.
Read next: The 50 best Aphex Twin tracks