Album Analysis | Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92
Musical polymath Richard D. James' first full-length under his Aphex Twin moniker both summarised the electronic music scene up until its release, and inspired its developments to this day.
Richard D. James already had a few releases under his belt by 1992. After dropping out of an electronics course at Kingston Polytechnic, he remained a part of the London music scene to contribute tracks for compilations by influential label Warp Records, under various names including AFX, Polygon Window, Blue Calx and The Dice Man. His first EP, Analogue Bubblebath, was released in 1991 under the name The Aphex Twin - although after he dropped the "The" and released his debut LP as Aphex Twin, this EP was reissued under the name AFX. Analogue Bubblebath's title track was a fairly traditional acid house track that fit perfectly into the rave scene of the time, while still displaying James' remarkable talents.
Aphex Twin has become known for his extensive discography, which spans over three decades and almost every genre of electronic music. From distorted, abrasive tracks seemingly designed to unsettle the listener (such as "Come to Daddy" and the bizarrely successful single "Windowlicker") to earnestly gorgeous piano pieces such as "Avril 14th" (notably sampled by Kanye West on "Blame Game") and "aisatana ", he has run the gamut of styles and tones, and excelled almost every time.
Only four years after Selected Ambient Works 85-92, James released his eponymous Richard D. James Album, which married his ambient soundscapes to punishing, jungle-inspired breakbeats in a combination as effective as it is strange. The album's highlight, "Girl/Boy Song", takes a pleasant, airy string section that would be stunning on its own, and adds a drum track so fast and erratic that it sounds like the computer is malfunctioning. While the Richard D. James Album is simultaneously one of his most experimental and accessible works, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is equally engrossing, and paved the way for its successors.
While James' work in the late '80s and early '90s was simple in comparison - based almost entirely around a handful of sounds (such as Roland's TR-808 drum machine and TB-303 bass synth) standard to dance music of the time - it nonetheless reflected his unique genius and intuition. This is evident from opener "Xtal", with its warm wash of synth pads and dreamlike, wordless vocal (supposedly a royalty-free sample) evoking Brian Eno at his most tranquil. Rather than "Analogue Bubblebath", it is tracks like this that are most reminiscent of the feeling of sliding into a warm tub at the end of the day.
Despite this, and the album's title itself, there is as much rhythm as there is ambience on this collection. Even "Xtal"'s serene harmonies and soothing textures are backed by simple-yet-effective four-on-the-floor kicks and classic 808 drum fills. While the hypnotic second track "Tha" once again puts the focus on the ambient, with it's uber-minimalist motifs and nine-minute runtime, its successor "Pulsewidth" is classic late '80s acid, the beats propulsive enough to soundtrack a great night out while the soft, reverbed synth chords float above the dancefloor like clouds.
The most uptempo tracks on SAW... are as physical and primal as anything you'd hear at a warehouse rave - "Green Calx" combines a punishing, machine-gun rhythm with industrial sounds of machinery and the relentless, rapid-fire "squelch" of a TB-303 bass synth, calling back to James' early, pre-SAW singles. "Heliosphan"'s rhythm seems to predict the big-beat sound of the later '90s, years before The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim took over the charts with the style. Alongside the heavy rhythms, the foreboding synths evoke Blade Runner's darkness and retro-futurism.
The entire album carries this sense of the future: to modern listeners well-versed in electronic music it may sound primitive and limited by the decades-old technology used to produce it, but it also offers a glimpse into what the future would have sounded like in the early '90s. Not to mention the hooks on display - the infectious disco-style bassline of "Ptolemy" could have come from any of Daft Punk's mid-'00s smash hits, and the childlike bleeps and bloops of "Ageispolis"' main motif are as sugary sweet as any pop song (and were sampled prominently in successful South African rap group Die Antwoord's 2014 single "Ugly Boy").
There is speculation over whether or not SAW... should be considered a true studio album: the title itself makes no attempt to hide the fact that the tracks are a compilation of seven years' worth of artistic output (but then again, how many other debut LPs does this apply to?). The fact that James chose to release it as his first LP under the Aphex Twin name shows that he meant for this to be a defining statement as an artist, and the album is as cohesive a journey as any other. Take the transition from the fantastically mellow bass-driven "Ageispolis", which feels like the soundtrack to the luxury resort of the future, to the sleepy minute-long beatless interlude "I", before the intense industrial scraping sounds that introduce acid-techno banger "Green Calx". These transitions are reminiscent of late '60s and '70s album-oriented progressive rock - making this one of the defining electronic album experiences, rather than simply a compilation of disparate tracks made for the club.
The Gene-Wilder-as-Willy-Wonka-sampling " We Are The Music Makers" is one of the strongest cuts here, outlining the album's ethos both in its introductory vocal sample "we are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams" and in its spacey synth chords and gradual, leisurely progression through subtle changes of texture and mood. The nod to the classic 1971 family film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a small stroke of genius. The film depicts being led on a journey that encompasses wonder, fear and confusion (that terrifying tunnel scene must have traumatised countless kids in the last forty years!), and the eventual loss of childhood innocence - not far off the experience of listening to the album.
SAW... is an album that suits various moods and activities. Its unique blend of ambience and energy makes it ideal background music for relaxation, for partying, or for working (it is playing in the background as I write this, and has soundtracked numerous writing sessions in the past!). The music's constant balance between the unobtrusive and the engaging, combined with the hypnoticism of the repeating beats and motifs, allows the mind to wander and explore ideas while keeping a steady focus. It is not merely background music, however: James' skill and inventiveness is so clear that it stands head and shoulders above your average "chillout" album.
You can hear the influence of Aphex Twin's debut album in almost any modern electronic music you will hear - from the aforementioned big-beat sound that dominated the chart near the turn of the century, to acts like Daft Punk and Justice who put French house on the map in the '00s, to more recent big-name acts like Disclosure and Porter Robinson. Alongside these commercially-successful names, the more leftfield, underground and experimental sounds of the last thirty years also owe a huge debt to SAW... Alongside Warp Records' Artificial Intelligence compilations of the early '90s, Aphex Twin's debut helped kick off a movement of introspective, genre-bending dance music suited more to quiet evenings listening at home than to soundtracking a party. This music, although usually danceable, owed as much to experimentalists like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Tangerine Dream as to disco and synthpop.
James himself, when describing the music from his own record label Rephlex, attempted to coin the term "braindance" to refer to the cerebral nature of this "new" genre. The media chose a different term, "intelligent dance music", or "IDM", which James accused of having elitist connotations, claiming in a 1997 interview that "it's basically saying 'this is intelligent and everything else is stupid.' It's really nasty to everyone else's music." Not to mention dismissive of earlier pioneering acts who combined electronic experimentation with danceable rhythms - such as Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and a plethora of dub reggae artists!
Whatever you want to call this genre, it has maintained cultural relevance, critical acclaim, and success ever since. Artists like Autechre, Squarepusher, Flying Lotus and Boards of Canada have maintained a loyal following and put out consistently inventive music since the '90s - and so has Aphex Twin himself. Even rock bands like Radiohead incorporated the style into their work on albums such as Kid A, with vocalist Thom Yorke calling Aphex Twin "a massive influence".
SAW...'s final track "Actium" is low-key, sparse, and robotic, and slowly fades away with no dramatic climax or resolution. It is a fitting end to an album which never demands attention with gimmicks or spectacle, instead slowly revealing itself over multiple listens. I first heard this album as a teenager with a general aversion to electronic dance music, but a growing interest in Radiohead's later work. Delving into their influences, I came across this album and was immediately entranced by "Xtal". While the rest of the album at first seemed repetitive, with little to remember or inspire, something (most likely its usefulness as background music for studying and writing coursework) made me return to it. Several years later, it has opened my mind to the world of listening to and creating electronic music, and on each listen I hear something new.
Listen to Selected Ambient Works 85-92 on Spotify here.