Aphex Twin - Syro

Aphex Twin plugs you in and makes your brain dance.

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ARTIST: Aphex Twin



First thing’s first, let’s get over the fact that this is Richard D. James’ first proper release as Aphex Twin in thirteen years. Ignoring that this is near impossible, the British electronic music icon hasn’t exactly been dormant, recording as The Tuss and AFX during this supposed absence. Certainly, there is something significant in James’ revival of his Aphex Twin moniker, but I don’t know if labeling this an “epic comeback” really captures Syro—if anything, the LP is understated in comparison to his last full-length, drukQs, never quite reaching the frenzy of its paranoid malfunctions, nor the mysticism of its picturesque ballads (closing outro “aisatsana” comes near, but ends up sounding reflective rather than exquisite). Instead, Syro feels more as if we are only now allowed a peek into the pixilated dimensions that James has been programming into existence all these years.

Released via Warp, Syro remains close to James’ former work: breakbeats glitch up, drum patterns seem more the work of an algorithm than a human, and synths are inflected with his curious sense of melody, that is as much derived from outer-space funk jams as it is from a computer dumping data. The album also continues on the acid techno themes that have permeated James’ prior releases (including the 2005 Analord series), and his trademark acid basslines, as well as other bleeps, keep the record lively with its punchy bounce. Yet, there has been a thirteen-year gap since the eclectic drukQs, and it is no surprise to those familiar with Aphex Twin and his production techniques that there is a marked change in the tools he is using. Syro is refreshed as a result, particularly in the finer production details and textures of dancier tracks like “180db_”, or penultimate future-jungle track, “s950tx16wasr10”.

James has always been heavily tied to compositional music technology, and he seems to embody its totality on Syro; listed on the vinyl packaging are 138 pieces of audio equipment used in the making of the LP, while the song titles themselves are references to music hardware. James has even made attempts to computerize himself before, famously rendering his face in a spectrograph for one of his tracks. He elaborates in a Rolling Stones interview: “we’re half-cyborg already, whether we like it or not. Everything is based on computers—our whole economy, and most of our creative pursuits, as well. We’re not physically connected to them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not part of our brains”. It actually might be easier to write this review if Aphex were a cyborg, possibly even explaining his well-documented disregard for his fans. Yet, given that his computerized emotions have resonated with so many, it isn’t so hard to believe that our tastes have come to mirror the increasingly blurry divide between humans and machinery.

Reflecting this, Syro is strewn with cyborg vocals. Indecipherable and distorted, these voices warm Aphex’s extraterrestrial backdrops with their homey warbles. James actually sampled the voices of his own family, keeping their words indistinct as a means of maintaining privacy; yet, not knowing this factoid on my first listen, the human reference is obvious—these are thin, robotic voices, yes, but as tangible as any human sound. The vocal production is sometimes similar to commercial-hit “Windowlicker”, but the voices in Syro are much more peculiar and personable than those dreamy “aaahs”: a humble android transforms “minipops 67” from enigmatic to cozy, while a cyborg-child croons halfway through circuit-masher “CIRCLONT14”. Parallels could even be drawn to Burial (though this might be a hazardous comparison to make), both using strangled-out, inhuman voices in their music to insert a sense of breathtaking, intimate and strange beauty.

These voices are not alone however, and, in between their intrusions, otherworldly pads provide lush scenes for these cyborgs to wander. Their harmonies are never entirely at ease, detuned or off-key in James’ peculiar modes; but, whatever he does, these tracks manage to sound extremely emotive despite their robotic objects, occupying some nebulous region of the brain with gentle chords and a hypnotic pulse (leaving aside the manic house in “180db_”). So, despite its percussive mutations, Syro encourages you to lift your gaze above the commotion. And just as the skies can change with each subtle passing of the hour, Syro also transforms imperceptibly and—looking back down later—the cityscape looks suddenly altered and foreign. The track “syro u473t8+e”, for instance, morphs so abruptly from an intergalactic boogie to an isolated contemplation of space that it is difficult to remember exactly how you got there.

So much is packed into every song that each could almost stand alone as a release (the lengthy, shape-shifting journey of “XMAS_EVET10” in particular). Travelling at warp speed through vast soundscapes, there isn’t much time to contemplate any single motif. One friend who attended a Syro listening party in San Francisco mentioned that the album seemed to pass by quickly, lacking any single moment to truly grasp before dissipating. In this way, the LP is almost homogenously inhomogeneous, where it is initially difficult to differentiate between tracks. But this collection does cohere as an album—138 pieces of musical equipment creating one computerized psychedelic experience. It’s not exactly groundbreaking (which James would be the first to admit), but it’s unquestionably Aphex: completely divorced from any categorization, somehow reconciling the differences between humans and robots in retro-cosmic terms.

“It’s about a fifth of what I’ve done in the last 10 years. One album out of many possible ones.”

1. minipops 67 [source field Mix]
With its peppy techno groove and pseudo-catchy melodies, the opening track continues on some of the pop themes of 1999’s “Windowlicker”. Yet, “Windowlicker” is relatively single-minded in comparison to the construction in “minipops 67”. Whereas the former is based on a looping phrase, the latter is haphazard: percussions pressurize and decompress, releasing odd, gaseous chords into the air, that later condense as piano-droplets. Yet, this isn’t all cold steel and ventilation, and the song’s highlight is probably its android voices. Murmuring beneath the din at first, their gargle becomes clearer and more humanoid as the other sounds fall out. “minipops 67” is a long awaited release, having been known previously as the “Manchester track” that James played in a DJ set in 2007.8.0
2. XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 Mix]
Standing at ten-and-a-half minutes, this is the lengthiest track on Syro. In it, acid funk forms and dissolves in warm layers of cosmic radiation, leading the listener from spacey to groovy (before realizing that space is pretty darn groovy itself). Voices occasionally interrupt this journey in “XMAS_EVET10”, but mostly this is a mellow introspection—that is, until you realize that you’re out of fuel, left in the depths of space with haywire mechanics. Again, the second track isn’t exactly new material, appearing during one of James’ shows in 2010 in the French city of Metz.7.0
3. produk 29
“produk 29” brings Syro into its more dancey phase. Bass-stabs, jazzy pads, and a shuffling beat at first give a retro-funk feel, but Aphex demonstrates that he is still with the times, following some snobbish British ladies (some of the most human voices on Syro) into UK bass territory. From here, the beat takes on more of a dubstep approach, with sinister strings, bleeps, and minimal half-time rhythms.7.5
4. 4 bit 9d api+e+6
“4 bit 9d api+e+6” can only be described as amorphous: there seems to be an underlying shape, but it shifts so much (over that wonderful squelchy bass) that it is hard to identify. Impressively, this never feels disjunctive: as much as elements seem to startle into life, they all seem to fit snugly into Aphex’s grander party designs. This makes for an exciting listen too, as you never really know what’s coming next (he even drops a dubbed-out chord at one point, and then reverses it in the next measure). Overall, the beat does progress from bubbly retro-techno to something breathier, but it’s not easy to pinpoint exactly where on that spectrum you are at times; when you do, the beat has switched again.7.5
5. 180db_
The danciest song on Syro, “180db_” is a mischievous house tune built around a relentless 4/4 bass kick, violent breakbeats, and a mad club-synth. As such, the track is probably the most focused on the album, staying the same for the majority of its length. It is odd that a paranoid dance track would be a source of relief, but “180db_” provides Syro with the solid ground it sorely lacks. However, this is hostile territory, where wailing noises and muscular beats keep the listener on edge.8.0
6. CIRCLONT6A [syrobonkus mix]
The first of the CIRCLONT pair, this track quickens the heartbeat with its fast pace and rapid changes. Similar to “4 bit 9d api+e+6” in some ways, the track also follows a general arc from stuttering dance music to more formless regions. However, “CIRCLONT6A” carries momentum through these transitions in a way that “4 bit 9d api+e+6” falls a little short of, seeming to evoke the final boss stage of some videogame with its determined 8-bit synths.7.5
7. fz pseudotimestretch+e+3
The album interlude offers a break from the percussive intensity surrounding it. Starting with intercepted transmissions and tenser sonics, the song uncoils into a half-muted chord progression with clicks and buzzing, allowing the mind to wander for a second.7.0
8. CIRCLONT14 [shrymoming mix]
“CIRCLONT14” stutters into life, waking listeners up from their short-lived respite. With computers already malfunctioning in the intro, you know that you’re deep in Aphex territory. Indeed, this is frenetic stuff, where the first half of the track seems to take after juke, with dark, angular percussions that sound as much 808 as they do amen break. That’s why its startling when “CIRCLONT14” transitions, peeling away Syro’s frenzied layers for a few seconds of pure bliss: a sweet human voice breaks through, letting waxy chords and cute textures loose (that sound oddly like a mix between Ramadanman and Ratatat). It is moments like this that I wish could have lasted longer on the album but, alas, the voice glitches out, and its back to business.8.5
9. syro u473t8+e [piezoluminescence mix]
I wouldn’t exactly call this one the “title track” despite it using the word “syro”. “syro u473t8+e” does summarize the sounds and structures that have already appeared in the album, but that is exactly why it feels a little rehashed. That isn’t to say that it does a bad job (it is definitely a great listen), but by this point in the album I could do with something other than acid bass grooves and funky computer jams, though it would be sacrilegious to tire of his percussions. Fortunately, Aphex seems to realize this too, abruptly switching gears for the last couple minutes. In particular, a synth-line captures the attention, quivering like a voice—as if the tables have turned, and the computer now tries to speak like a human. On a not-entirely-unrelated note, it is neat that Aphex samples his Russian-speaking wife, rendering her voice as as impersonal intercom announcement.7.5
10. papat4 [pineal mix]
An upbeat, summery tune, where the heat seems to shimmer in the air, “papat4” sounds more akin to some of Aphex’s older drill ‘n’ bass tracks (certainly, there is much more of a drum ‘n’ bass reference with its busy, high-tempo breakbeat). “papt4”, though, lies on the lighter side of his work, with acid squiggles for basslines and gentle wobbles for texture. The track does descend into ghostlier realms, but preserves at least a tinge of its cheery playfulness throughout.6.0
11. s950tx16wasr10 [earth portal mix]
“s950tx16wasr10” is the closest thing to jungle on the album, sitting around 160bpm with skittering breakbeats. Yet, even as it references 90’s rave scenes, some parts of the track don’t seem completely misaligned, except in intent, with the recent futurism that UK producers flexed in their jungle war dubs. Indeed, this track probably contains some of the most forward-looking material of Syro, piecing jagged, unconventional rhythms together that will twist all your limbs up. Aphex’s alien synths do creep in to smoothen the track at points, but they too become infected with jungle-futurism, tickling all your strange, delightful spots.8.5
12. aisatsana
The name of James’ wife spelt backwards, “aisatsana” has a sentimental quality that Syro rarely touches. With contemplative piano notes, long pauses and serene bird-chirps, the closing track weans you off of Aphex Twin’s high-octane sound; your breathing slows to normal, your mind unties its knots, and reality seeps slowly back in (unpixilated and idyllic in comparison). The piano still develops as if controlled by some algorithm, but its notes are distinctly melodic and poignant, similar to the Satie-inspired piano-music in drukQs. Interestingly, “aisatsana” was originally part of an art installation where a programmed piano was hung from a ceiling and swung like a pendulum.8.5
Written by Justin Kwok
Justin Kwok is a Media Studies major at UC Berkeley, but daydreams of being an instrumentalist in some electronic duo. He enjoys deep bass music and psychedelia.

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