In last week’s post, I was comparing 90’s IDM to 70’s prog, and claimed that Aphex’s Drukqs was analogous to ELP’s Love Beach. I thought a lot about that comparison and decided to re-listen to both albums for posterity. Granted I think the book is pretty much closed on Love Beach, but Drukqs is one of those albums that I feel is due for a critical re-evaluation. Released in 2001, which was probably the last great year for IDM, or at least the year where IDM started to assimilate itself elsewhere. Radiohead released a pair of albums (Kid A and Amnesiac) that were explicitly IDM-influenced, both of which wound up being surprisingly successful, and you know there were a lot of writer/producers (like say, Trent Reznor) who were paying close attention. 2001 was the year of Confield, which has got to hold the record for “most times spun in an attempt to enjoy”; where Radiohead was starting to make these sounds palatable, Autechre was doubling down on abstraction, resulting in an album so dry and technical that fans openly wondered if there was really anything to it. For further evidence that the tides were turning, compare Confield‘s reputation as a difficult masterpiece to Draft 7.30‘s reputation as an infuriating wind-up, even though they were both very similar. Then you’ve got Squarepusher, who’d previously gained favor as the guy expertly melding jazz with drum and bass, doing things like Go Plastic, which was stuffed with full-on noise freakouts and had little in the way of actual tunes.
Aphex Twin of course was the rock dude’s electronica artist-of-choice, and it’s easy to see why. Even if you didn’t like the guy’s music, you had to admit that something incredible was going on there, and for once the idea that a guy on MTV was some kind of modern Mozart didn’t seem that far-fetched. More than that, I think people fell in love with the idea of Aphex Twin, the guy who recorded in a bank vault and owned a tank and handed in remixes without even hearing the original tracks. Here was a guy who was famous, but truly couldn’t give a toss about fame, and was more than willing to fabricate stories in interviews (or even better, send imposters to do them). You had “Come to Daddy”, a “parody” of industrial music that’s way more intense than anything The Prodigy or Nine Inch Nails ever did, and “Windowlicker”, an electrified, distorted take on R&B that’s downright brilliant (and disturbing, to boot). Both had videos directed by Chris Cunningham that were hilarious and horrifying, to the point where it’s tough to believe they were ever actually shown on TV.
So yeah, the stakes were high. Despite his stature growing in the latter half of 90’s, Aphex hadn’t released an actual album since 1996’s Richard D. James Album, (LIIIINK) and even that one was barely a half-hour long. The announcement of Drukqs was a big deal – his first proper album in five years, a double, no less. Problem is, it was not really what anyone expected; rather than the visceral freakout of Richard D. James Album or the big concept tunes that marked Come to Daddy and Windowlicker, Drukqs was the kind of album that didn’t really make any kind of first impression. Like with The Orb’s Pomme Fritz, the backlash was immediate, and, similar to The Orb’s story that Pomme Fritz was made in a week, many took to James’ claim that Drukqs was not really intended for release, but rather a collection of tunes he left behind on an MP3 player on a plane that he might as well release himself before the pirates took to it. The subtext of course being that this isn’t a real follow-up to Richard D. James Album, but rather a bunch of tracks he had lying around, so no reason to take it seriously, right?
I guess that’s one way to rationalize it. Drukqs sounds like someone took pieces of three unfinished albums and threw them on shuffle; together with the lengthy and ridiculous tracklisting (half the track titles read like a cat walked across the keyboard), it makes for one real brick wall of an album. Sure, in 1994, he released Selected Ambient Works, Volume II, nearly an hour longer than this one, featuring an even more ridiculous tracklisting (25 of the 26 titles were photographs, and even then it wasn’t clear which one corresponded with which), but at least there you had some continuity; the music felt all of a piece somehow. For all we know (this still is Aphex Twin, after all) this is done on purpose, but Drukqs is a disjointed and often jarring listen; putting the album on shuffle (to my ears) produces pretty much the exact same experience as listening in the intended order.
In a high-level sense, Drukqs is half drum and bass and half piano pieces; the drum and bass tracks are lengthier and wild, while the piano bits are much more controlled and ornate. Often they are vignettes that don’t even hit the 2-minute mark. Some of this is done via prepared piano, similar to John Cage; others sound like James himself sitting down at the piano and just playing something (RDJ claims these tracks were sequenced with MIDI, which is…pretty damn impressive, actually). Interspersed with this are a few tunes that don’t fit in either box – “Gwarek2”, a sort of avant-garde piece with a lot of unsettling screaming, or “Gwely Mernans”, a would-be ambient piece with a massive rumbling backdrop. What you don’t hear is anything immediate – no clever genre excursions, no humorous bits (outside of a small part of “Cock/Ver10”), nothing catchy or even all that memorable.
I’ll be straight here – I think time has done this album well. The first thing I notice nowadays is just how well-produced everything is. Aphex’s work always sounded good but a lot of his best-known stuff had some kind of production quirk – the tape hiss on Selected Ambient Works 85-92, the radical uses of volume on I Care Because You Do, or the pummeling treble on the Richard D. James Album. Drukqs is the sort of album you can really crank. The quiet tunes are full of all sorts of neat details; from the lush church organ of “Btoum-Roumada” to the metal rods banging together on prepared piano pieces like “Hy A Scullyas Lyf Adhagrow” or “Prep Gwarlek 3b”, or even the muted keys of “Ruglen Holon” or “Kladfvgbung Micshk”. All this music sounds very much out of time, as though Aphex pulled it out of a 60-year old chamber. The drum and bass tracks are also tough to place in this regard; I don’t know if RDJ switched back to analog synthesizers, but there are a lot of sounds that date back to the Detroit days. The result is an album that feels timeless – where the drilling and snare rushes of the Richard D. James Album and Come to Daddy feel rooted in the late-90’s, Drukqs still sounds fresh. All the D&B pieces are thrilling; they’re so meticulously sequenced and stuffed with detail that you would have to slow them down to really comprehend what’s going on. One moment that stands out is on “Mt. Saint Michel + Saint Michel’s Mount”, about four minutes in, where a lengthy drum pattern comes in and switches up drumpacks every six seconds, venturing from deep bass pings to recognizable 808 sounds; it’s a lot of fun and one of those things that must’ve taken forever to get exactly right.
Anyway, pointing out individual tracks is kind of pointless here. It’s a difficult album to discuss, as not only is it so long, but the track titles are basically impossible to memorize, and there are not really any standout tracks – the one that always gets mentioned is the gorgeous “Avril 14th”, and I’d say the aforementioned “Mt. Saint Michel + Saint Michel’s Mount” is probably the best tune altogether. But really, the album just doesn’t have a lot of talking points, at least not in the sense that Aphex Twin’s stuff usually does. Most of his work (post-SAWII, at least) would have some aspect that tried to actively antagonize the listener; something like “Ventolin” may not be easy to listen to, but it sure was fun to talk about. Granted, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense; sure, “Windowlicker” was his most popular tune, but the other two tracks on the single – the complex math equation and “Nannou”, foreshadow like 90% of what you find here, and we should’ve all known that Aphex would not stay on the same path for long.
So, exactly how wrongheaded was the Love Beach comparison? Not only are they totally different in terms of quality, but in retrospect, IDM in 2001 was not really analogous to the corpse that was prog in 1978, as several notable IDM albums came out in ’01. A much better comparison is Tales From Topographic Oceans; both impenetrable double albums, both considered disappointing at their time, both released when the genre was at its tipping point (prog had a couple of good years left, but 1973 was its critical mass), but most importantly, both of them benefit from hindsight. When the prog backlash subsided, it seemed that Tales gained a reputation as being a hidden gem (though “hidden in plain sight” may be more accurate; Tales is one of Yes’s most infamous releases); it was just something you had to cycle through a few times before really understanding. The kick-ass riffs and jaw-dropping playing that was so apparent on Fragile and Close to the Edge was all still there, but you had to look for it. Drukqs is much the same; I think both albums could benefit from some editing, particularly Tales, which has always struck me as 55-60 minutes of ideas spread over 80 (ah, the classic “three good sides” argument, though it’s hard to apply that to an album with four songs). Similarly not every track on Drukqs feels necessary; Disc 1 is a little tigher than Disc 2, but as a whole it’s a surprisingly brisk 100 minutes, with plenty of short tracks and points of interest along the way. Even though I’ve been playing it all week long, it still feels like there’s plenty left to explore, and I find myself glad he didn’t continue in the direction of Come to Daddy, as classic as that EP is. Unpredictability is really one of his defining features; nobody would’ve guessed John Cage as a major inspiration for his “Windowlicker” follow-up. That’s one of the most intriguing things about Richard D. James; nobody really knows what he’s capable of.