Aphex Twin Tinkers, Tweaks and Triumphs on Delightfully Disorienting ‘Collapse EP’
Popular music derives much of its power from its predictability — the epic bass drop that you can sense coming for three minutes, the seeping, anthemic chorus whose inevitabile imminence packs stadiums of fans poised on the edges of their seats. Of course, having always been subject to music built from these blocks, it occasionally becomes a bit of fun to shuffle them about. This is why the IDM niche took off in spite of having possibly the stupidest genre descriptor of all time. For restless and adventurous spirits worldwide, the glitchy ‘90s productions of Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin, were a monumental discovery — music that seems to transcend space and time, and still pack a dirty, dancefloor punch, with rhythms that shift and stutter, tones that morph and mutate, sounds that stop short and stretch out. Never one to grow complacent, James has tried his hand at many styles and sounds over the years, creating albums of ambient works, and some more understated and conventional projects. His output is as erratic as it’s prolific, and you never know exactly what to expect from a new Aphex Twin release. It’s safe to say the new “Collapse EP” does not find James in ambient mode. It’s a dense, hyperactive, glitchy frenzy of bangers. You could perhaps call it “classic Aphex Twin,” although it hardly makes sense to call something “classic” that has always been so far ahead of its time.
Opener “T69” begins just where James’ last full length, 2014’s “Syro” left off. It’s a frantic, high-octane, hammerheaded technical extravaganza that could be the work of none other than Aphex Twin. It sounds like James has about a thousand bouncy balls shooting and ricocheting off the walls of a tiny studio space jam-packed with gear. While much of James’ earlier work — think his classic era-defining single “Come to Daddy” — sounded quite dark and dystopian, his output in recent years has stood out among that of other IDM artists in the brightness of its aesthetic. Glitchy electronic music is usually a rather gothic affair, dark tunnel music, all splinter shards and scraps of industrial sheet metal. James’ music, by contrast, is in neon color, full of goofy sound design that imbues it with a certain levity, which doesn’t quite offset the exhausting intricacy of the music as much as it seems to make it even stranger. There’s no energy wasted on shaping synth sounds to anything elegant or tasteful. Instead, what you usually have is your most cartoonish, video-game bleeps allowed to run rampant in lines that really play up the jokey sci-fi angle. The midsection of “T69” is a dizzying, mind-blowing moment even from James, as he messes with your conception of time, shifting tiles, dismantling rails, speeding things up by slowing them down and vice versa.
“1st 44” is the sound of someone having way too much fun with drum machines. It begins with droning bass drums, handclaps and cowbells scattered in a deconstructed abstraction, which soon escalates into jaggedly concerted, skittering madness. James locks into a tight groove, and manages to create a dancey, even somewhat loungy vibe, while still tweaking everything at play with his usual madcap restlessness, keeping the sound both grounded and excitingly engaging. Following his thought patterns in real time, to your best ability, as you would a jazz musician during a solo passage, can be downright exhilarating. This may seem to go without saying, but it’s a rarity in electronic music. Eventually, whooshes and sweeping flashes hit, and synth lines enter that seem to hang suspended in space, bringing the track to closure like ghosts in a fog. Next, “MT1 t29r2” begins with a synth melody of a deeply unsettling, murky tone. When the usual frenetic, percussive machine work hits, the song gives a sense of feeling queasy on a rollercoaster ride — one on which all the shifting gears and inner workings of the gargantuan structure are at once visible in hi definition. Midway, a little twee melody takes root in the chaotic mix, giving it all an eerie, fantastical carnival vibe, as all sorts of pops and clicks sound and rattle at the peripheries.
“abundance10edit[2 R8’s, FZ20m & a 909]” features tuned percussion that makes melodies out of drums in a vaguely tribal beat. It brings to mind Brian Eno’s famous response to the statement that “There are not enough computers in Africa,” to which he replied, “There is not enough Africa in computers.” While James often designs his sounds specifically to sound rigid and mechanical, he is also able to assemble them in ways that sound primal and organic, while still striking as absolutely futuristic. A vocal sample eventually enters the mix, saying, “My friend, I will lead you to a land of abundance.” A rather chirpy melody of amorphous tones is lain over the busy, syncopated drums, making the music sound somewhat tropical in the most alien way possible, and it indeed feels like James is leading you into some distant universe. “Pthex” might be the most “classic” Aphex Twin song here, as it revisits the sped up, deconstructed drum and bass sounds that formed the framework in many of his early tracks. You can imagine James typing at 300 words per minute on his drum pads, tangled in a mess of wires, tripping over cables, and bouncing right back up, with his perpetual prankster grin showing no signs of waning. There’s rubbery bass, acid synth lines, ominous, hazy pads, freeze-frame flashes, and Twilight Zone melodies, all meshing into a grand culmination that’s almost a parody of an Aphex Twin track.
For music that has always positioned itself in direct defiance of cliche, it’s ironic that James’ work has itself fallen somewhat susceptible to cliches of their own, as James’ rich catalogue over the years has familiarized us with many of his idiosyncratic tricks of trade. Critics hoping for a radical reinvention will be disappointed that, alas, James has not ditched his gear and rediscovered himself as a folk singer. On the other hand, James’ Music is so teeming with fresh, exciting ideas that more of the same is never actually more of the same. Those completely unfamiliar with Aphex Twin should expect headaches, possibly a seizure, and feelings of disorientation and profound confusion. But don’t let this dissuade you any more than you would the cheery litany of warnings at the end of TV drug commercial. Anyone looking for some excitement and edge will likely find “Collapse EP” offering much to enjoy, even if hard to endure. Fans will have a field day, pausing and rewinding to work their heads around all the mind-bending madness on display.
“Collapse EP” is available Sept. 14 on Apple Music.