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.”