Album Review: Aphex Twin—“Syro”

By Stuart Oakes

I can never appreciate the Beatles like someone in their early 60s. I do my best to capture that sensation of grabbing the rocket just before it takes off, of racing forward to unknown worlds, but it is never the same. It is an experience born of being twelve, sitting down to watch some television, and glimpsing four mop-haired British boys doing a funny dance on a cold Sunday in 1964. Suddenly, for one of us, the future is limitless and exhilarating; I, on the other hand, already know how the story goes, how it ends, what they meant and, ultimately, what they mean now.

This is a good illustration of the predicament I face in reviewing the new Aphex Twin album, Syro. Unlike most recent releases, I lack an emotional context to Richard D. James’ work, as the bulk of his music was released before my time. This is a dilemma that I noted after attending an official listening party for the album and realizing everyone in attendance was at least ten years older than me. However, with or without career context, Syro is a fantastic record – an intricate, brilliant, virtuosic release, and it is well worth a listen.

The album art of Syro

The album art of Syro

Aphex Twin bridges the gap between dance music and straight electronic like no other artist; nearly every song on Syro pulls ideas from the traditional styles he loves – jungle, acid, breakbeat, IDM, DnB, techno and ambient – and twists them, building, combining and subverting until they sound entirely unique. Pump these songs loud and they could almost be taken for rave or club music. “180db_” is pure techno, full of an insistent 4/4 kick and exhilarating drops, while “PAPAT4 (Pineal Mix)” works from a jungle blueprint in order to find its groove.

However, it is during more intimate listening that the music truly unveils itself as remarkable. First of all, the sound palette is extraordinary – the synths alone are stunning, and the sheer numbers of different tones give the listener some idea as to how much time and care was put into this album. Syro is complex, with different sounds continuously emerging to provide an intriguing, ever-changing series of textures and variations, but the mix never feels forced or anxious and the album works both as background noise and as a centre of attention. The drums are precisely calibrated to dance in and around the beat, tripping up or urging on the carefully arranged melodies that coat every surface and chase each other down rabbit holes. Bass is used with care, occasionally emerging to underline a particularly notable idea or add harmony and rhythmic complexity. Unlike many previous works, this is not a “challenging” Aphex Twin release, and while it frequently cherry picks ideas from his long and varied career (as everything from a rave DJ to a celebrated ambient producer), it is very much a contemporary work. Moreover, the album feels like a carefully constructed release that keeps pushing, deriving feeling and emotion through James’ sheer mastery of the art form, until it collapses in relief into one of the most gorgeous tracks he has ever released, the striking solo piano recording, “Aisatsana.”

With that in mind, it comes as a surprise that Syro is reportedly a compilation of unrelated tracks, recorded over a series of years in a variety of places. This begs the questions what James could do if he sat down to make a full, continuous album again. Hopefully, we will be lucky enough to find out. (Warp)

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