By: Tommy Walzer
In a world dominated by high-energy electronic music, it can be easy to forget the unsung heroes who crafted a grassroots genre from ambiguous samples and weird synths into the booming, bass heavy industry it is today. But who could forget the bleak yet glistening ambiance of Aphex Twin? No one, and since his last album, 2001’s Druqks, his legacy has been solidified but not yet complete. After hinting at a new album through everything from stickers to blimps, the iconic producer Richard D. James has made his long-awaited return with Syro.This album proves that James has not lost any of his otherworldly touch or sophistication.
What I like most about Syro is the fresh subtleties embedded in the songs that still sound consistent with James’ acclaimed style. For me, the real beauty of Aphex Twin’s music is that you’re constantly questioning what exactly it is you’re listening to, while at the same time being oddly lured into deep sonic textures. Take “PAPAT (pineal mix)” for example; the track opens up with some sunny synths and a deep but bouncy bass line. An ethereal layer gradually envelopes the background, but just when it starts to lull you to sleep with its consistency, the synths come back into sharp focus and the action is renewed, this time with a sort of cut-up, computerized growl. These smooth textures allow for an appreciation of the remarkable attention to detail in the form of blips and samples that James puts into his work.
That being said, if you’re only a causal fan of electronic music, much less that of the minimal, “classical” sort, than it might be difficult to fully grasp the production value in Syro. A good starting point might be “Produk 29.” I like this track for several reasons. First off, there’s a nice solid beat from the get go, so it’s easy to follow. The main synth lead in this one is fluid, almost reminiscent of the ’80s. It again sort of hovers over the beat, flirting with various melodies. Then comes a chopped sample of a woman talking (presumably to her friends) about some “fucking house,” how “we were in that club,” and something “disgusting.” This adds some comic relief before my favorite part of the track, two bars of ascending keys that send chills down my spine.
“s950tx16wasr10” is also a cool track to get into, as it glitches up, warps, wobbles, and bounces through various airy background melodies over a crisp drum and bass beat. While Syro is finely tuned from a technical standpoint, there simply aren’t any notable, anthemic tracks to grab hold of. I know, I know, using “anthemic” when talking about Aphex Twin might seem a bit stupid…basically I’m referring to a tune that could rival “Windowlicker” in its hypnotic yet rigidly melodic qualities. “minipops 67 (source field mix)” is the album’s lone single, and while it’s probably the most structurally sound as far as listening goes, its light, funky calmness just doesn’t resonate with me. There’s a murky vocal sample at the end that I wish was played out over the whole track—now that would be window-licking tasty. The other cuts on Syro are more of the same sort of dullness.
Now, to make things clear, I’m not bashing the album’s lack of catchiness or some other superficial qualities that I think are necessary, especially for someone like Aphex Twin. There are plenty of ingenious orchestral bits sprinkled all over this album, and I can certainly appreciate them, but I just don’t think the average listener will. James caters to a cult following, albeit a very established one. If you’ve never dabbled in ambient music, then this may not be the album for you. If you have, or better yet are already a fan of Aphex Twin, then it’s a very solid return that you will find quite comforting. And on the theme of comforting, regardless of your musical orientation, “aisatsana” is definitely worth the listen. The closing track is a beautifully somber piano piece, complete with faint birds chirping in the background. It’s an intimate, acoustic farewell from this musical mastermind— one that hopefully isn’t permanent.
Tommy is a junior from Highland Park, IL. He is currently studying communications, and hopes to one day turn his musically dictated life into a productive career. He believes that he can play drums and freestyle rap quite well, and can be seen performing in your friend’s basement on weekends. He sheds a tear every time he puts on his Joan Baez vinyl, and is currently searching for a friend he can discuss black metal with.