Album Reviews | Aphex Twin – Syro (2014)

Selected Ambient Works 85-92I am endlessly delighted by this record. A true master, Aphex Twin (the stage name of Richard D. James) is best known for contributing his formative 1992 electronic work Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which is currently the 371st most acclaimed album of all time (and fifth most acclaimed album of 1992) on Acclaimed Music. As I become more and more familiar with electronic music, I have found that the best at what they do can draw upon a limitless set of textures. In particular, there is the sensation that a three-dimensional object (say, a cube) is being rotated slowly, and as the next side of the object comes into view, it becomes apparent that its surface is different from the previous side. The great electronic albums unfold with one of these faces/songs after another, each different from the last, and with repeat listens there is the sensation that the album is gathering steam as it hurtles through its duration.

Blue LinesOnce the cube starts spinning fast enough, the blurred motion takes the shape of a sphere, and it’s then that the album achieves greatness, launching into permanent orbit — once you’ve mapped it out in your mind, it never leaves; it’s always painted on the outer walls of your inner imagination somewhere. This is true of my relationship with all of my favorite electronic albums (Massive Attack‘s Blue Lines, DJ Shadow‘s Endtroducing…, even Radiohead‘s rock-framed, electronica-painted Kid A): all have made the journey to the outer recesses of my imagination. Again, though, all three of those albums benefit from a deft use of texture, something that I found completely absent from Skrillex‘s debut LP Recess when I reviewed it in early 2014.

Considering electronic music is often without vocals, texture is critical in developing soundscapes that sustain any kind of interest, and Selected Ambient Works 85-92 was a huge step forward in transitioning the genre from the club/rave scene to those who took a more compositional interest in the music. Of course, a development like this is nothing new — jazz provided music for dancing (the most popular form of entertainment in the first half of the 20th century) at first and it wasn’t until the recording industry developed in the second half of the century that composers found their home; hip-hop also began in the Bronx as street/party music in the late ’70s and fully transferred into recording studios by the mid-’80s. A pattern has seemingly emerged: a new form develops within a strictly performance-based ecosystem, but as it grows more popular, artists grab hold of it and stretch the boundaries of the form within the recording studio instead of simply replicating a live performance.

It’s not surprising that this happened with electronic music, as well, since after all, electronic sounds are digitally manipulated in the first place. EDM, which uses computer-based sounds, not the synth- and turntable-based sounds of ’90s electronic music, has yet to truly transfer its considerable promise in the realm of live performance to a great studio record, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone eventually comes along and makes it happen. As for Aphex Twin, Syro is decidedly not an EDM record, but it does sound more modern than Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which for me is still more of an interesting listen than a favorite. (I’m sure that will change in the fullness of time.) Syro is just plain old good stuff; if you are looking to get into real electronic music, this is a good place to start, and veterans should find plenty to savor too. Aside from the borderline saccharine (and non-electronic) closing track, which consists of an overly syrupy piano and nothing else (aside from some chirping birds), most of what’s here is top-shelf.


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