With Aphex Twin recently announcing the release of a new album called Syro in October, I figured it would be a good time to reminisce about my first time listening to Aphex. It was 2004 and I had just started school at Green Bay, was reading a bunch of music forums and Web Reviewing Community sites on the daily, and thus was hammering Amazon to pick up a bunch of cheap CDs (and torrenting a few others). The Richard D. James Album was among them, something I don’t even remember ever downloading, but probably decided to toss on my state-of-the-art 40 gig iPod because hell, I’d heard the name a bunch of times and was curious, but clearly I wound up forgetting about it. One night I was listening on shuffle while studying (read: playing Wind Waker) and “To Cure a Weakling Child” came on. Perhaps I was undergoing a particularly lucid moment, but it scared the hell out of me. Like, I actually had to turn it off after a couple minutes as it was freaking me out so much. Up until then I thought Aphex Twin was another electronic dude in lines with the stuff I already loved – Underworld, Orbital, the Chemical Brothers, and so on.
Of course Richard D. James was nothing like any of those guys; there’s a singularity to his music that makes it defy classification. Similar to BT, he spends so much time fiddling around with his electronics and writing his own programs that it ensures his music doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. But Aphex works in the IDM genre, whose lack of a real rhythmic base allows all sorts of crazy things to happen. IDM must have really seemed like an exciting thing in the mid-90’s; much like progressive rock of the 70’s, there was a real sense of “anything can happen” among this music, as it was not bound by the confines of 4/4 or the hope of radio play as so much else seemed to be. With prog there was a sense that you were listening to uniquely talented musicians writing songs that only they themselves could play (see Yes or Gentle Giant); IDM on the other hand was about tunes that nobody could play, as electronics allowed these guys to program melodies and rhythms that were simply too fast and twisted for a flesh-and-blood musician. How exciting is that? It was if the entire realm of musical possibilities were unlocked…
Well, let’s back up a bit. What sounded like the future of sound in the 90’s started to feel awfully gimmicky a decade later. Prog suffered much the same fate; In the Court of the Crimson King was almost certainly the most exciting record of 1969 to imitate – by 1979 you would be crazy to venture anywhere near it. I suppose you could draw a similar line for IDM, with Aphex’s own drukqs functioning as the genre’s Love Beach, though I only mean this in the eyes of the public. The great thing about Aphex Twin throughout the 90’s was that he always brought you something new; both volumes of Selected Ambient Works were very different, and I Care Because You Do was something else entirely. These are all terrific releases but it was here that he really began to gain public notoriety; where SAWII was strange in subtle ways and ICBYD generated oddness in ways that nobody (to my knowledge) had really considered before, the Richard D. James Album was the first of his releases to be aggressively weird; there was nothing like “Rhubarb” or “Icct Hedral” to fit in with the Enos and the Phillip Glasses, no spots where you could say “if the beats weren’t so turbo-jammed, this may sound fairly normal”.
Thus I think it’s a little funny hearing this as your first IDM album. I still remember my first listen vividly; it felt like hitting your funnybone over and over again. I had a night class on “music composition and theory”; a gen ed that I (wrongly) assumed would be a breeze – I remember hearing this right before a class and thinking, “what would my professor think of Aphex Twin?”. I loved so much in music, but had yet to experience anything that I felt was truly revolutionary (and wouldn’t again until I discovered Cardiacs a couple years later). All this feels more than a little hyperbolic now; I bought the CD and kept in rotation for a while, but before this recent announcement, I never quite got the urge to hear it again, even as I was obsessing over other RDJ releases. Now that it’s September of 2014 and I’m playing Aphex Twin all over again, I realize with some clarity that I Care Before You Do is so much more complete, experimental, and enjoyable, and that in retrospect the Come to Daddy EP is probably a better release as a whole.
Still, it’s easy to see why the Richard D. James Album felt so damn important then. A lot of electronic music, particularly the stuff I enjoyed, seemed to hit a lot of the same criticisms – “it’s too repetitive”, “there’s no personality”, “everything is too long”, “anyone could do this”…all things that the Richard D. James Album is assuredly not. Clocking in at about 30 minutes, there’s so much densely packed into it that there’s simply no room for bits to repeat, particularly in the rhythms, which evolve and rotate alongside everything else. The drum programming is likely the first thing you’ll notice; often described as “drill n’ bass” for the inhuman, rapid-fire nature of many of the rhythm parts. My first impression was that much of this was random, composed without rhyme or reason, but the tunes are so memorable that there’s no way this could be the case (I reserve that judgment for some of the work of Squarepusher and Venetian Snares, however). Certainly the level of detail is so meticulous that not just “anyone could do this”. What stands out about so many of the sounds however is just how organic so much of it sounds – the music is distinctly inhuman, but there are a lot of real instruments in here, and several percussive noises that feel less like a drum machine and more like pencils banging on Coke cans or a tongue clicking off the roof of the mouth.
As for personality, well Richard had it in spades, and I believe the cover of the album was pretty much perfect; there is James, staring out with a grin that feels sinister and grossly inhuman (you wonder if it’s more a result of bizarre lighting or some sort of doctoring). It’s scary, but also somehow hilarious, as it is so unsubtle and out there. The music is much the same; on one hand it’s gross and alien, and the other it’s almost unspeakably beautiful. One thing James did that the other IDM guys didn’t (or couldn’t) do is full-on orchestration – you hear a lot of it in I Care Because You Do, and you hear it in many of Richard D. James Album‘s best moments. “4” and “Girl/Boy Song”, two of James’s best compositions period, are examples of this – “4” uses a gorgeous, single violin, which morphs into a wobbly synth line, all while a pounding snare drills over the top. “Girl/Boy Song” on the other hand may be his most intricate composition; here you get pizzicato strings, bassoon, cello, and xylophone alongside an incredibly frantic drum n’ bass onslaught. At nearly five minutes it’s the longest track here, but every detail is meticulously composed and controlled; there are neat production or stereo effects that last a quarter of a second, if that. There are a couple of tracks that could be performed almost entirely acoustically – “Goon Gumpas”, which sounds like it’s straight out of a fairy tale (or a night on shrooms), and “Logon Rock Witch”, with its percussion ensemble and church organ. Many of the melodies are flighty and catchy in a way that’s emblematic of kids’ music; “Fingerbib” almost feels like a lullaby, and the sung melody of “To Cure a Weakling Child” sounds like something you would hear on the playground.
I’m listening to this a decade on (and nearly two since it’s original release!) and I’m still conflicted on it. I seem to have remembered every single note on it, every percussive flare-up, every little mixing trick that messes with your head when listening on a good stereo; I can’t say the same for any of my Squarepusher discs. I’m a bit weary of the way the thing was engineered – the treble-heavy mix will destroy your ears if you play it too loud – but the immaculate bits that did my head in back in college still sounded great. On the other hand, it’s a difficult album to really fall for again. Much of RDJ’s best work was based around these enveloping sonic landscapes that you could easily lose yourself in; on the Richard D. James Album, it’s like the landscapes are there, but you’re constantly getting pushed out of them. There are transfixing moments (listen to “Girl/Boy Song” from 3:05 on), but as a whole, it’s akin to an unrelenting firework show. There is beauty to be found, but more than that, there are more fireworks.