On Aphex Twin

I can remember the first time I heard an Aphex Twin song, and it would go onto become my favourite – a song that I would carry with me were I stranded on a desert island with only seven songs to occupy me for the rest of my life.  In 1999, whilst groin deep in nu-metal and teenage insecurity, I saw ‘Windowlicker‘ on MTV.  It was not love at first sight, but the briefest glimpse towards a new reality, a fast moving train passing through a station.  This strange and bizarre record confused me at first, but enough to want to see and hear it again, and in 1999 it was his breakout hit.  The stuttering beats, the ambient waves of sound and the constant clockwork groan of a distorted voice – I’d never heard anything like this before.  And then there was the video.  A disturbing satire on sexism in music videos (specifically rappers who filled their videos with women’s arses) taken to a logically terrfying extreme in which our impressive dancing bearded hero seduces and then transforms two statuesque women in the back of his limousine.  All building up towards the breakdown, and the pig-tailed girl who gives us a cute little finger wave even as she slides towards our screens with a face out of a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.

It all seemed so alternative, and that mattered when you were a teenager and wore ‘alternative’ as a proud label, like the ridiculous skater pants and the belt chains.  But this felt to me like a real alternative – not a uniform group of men with issues, turntables and drop-d guitar tunings.  This seemed to be beyond any black and white fight between the armies of the Normal and the Rockers.  I searched Napster for his songs, flicked through the CDs at my local indepedent record store, buying up anything with his name on it.  One night, very late and drunk, I watched a Banned Music Videos special on VH1 and was able to appreciate Come To Daddy in all it’s Cronenburgian violence.  I didn’t sleep much that night.

Many people I’ve tried to introduce to Aphex Twin come away reeling, unimpressed.  I don’t blame them.  Others dismiss him as pretentious music for people trying to find meaning in what sometimes sounds like a pneumatic road drill trapped inside an iron lung.  I don’t blame these people either, (although I would defend him on this; you should never dismiss an artist based on the people they pick up along the way.)

The problem I think new people have when they arrive on Planet Aphex is that they take him too seriously, and no-one I can think of in music takes themselves less seriously than Aphex Twin.  Come To Daddy is actually a parody song, which only gained infamy through its video – something which completely bewildered and amused its creator.  In a recent press release, he described himself as a “percussive fartist”.  Whilst he may have an obsessive devotion to music boxes, and has in the past taken apart synthesisers and other electronic devices to see what other noises they can make, he’s not someone trying to make great political points with his music.  His art isn’t foggy or impenetrable.

His sound varies dramatically, so it can be easy to be an Aphex Twin fan and only own two or three of his many recordings under thousands of aliases (this is a problem when it comes to being a fan of his – trying to keep up with releases and names, not all of whom he is entirely honest about.)  An album like Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is instantly accessible to everyone as a calm, ambient record, relaxing and inoffensive.  On the flipside, albums like Druqks or the Chosen Lord series are more difficult on the ear, with complex trip-hop beats on the latter, heavy drill’n’bass and occasional screaming on the former.

Some artists energise me with their music.  I get a rush of adrenaline from Metallica.  Nick Drake makes me thoughtful and introspective.  Bat For Lashes makes me want to dance, whilst The Streets makes me very nostalgic.  The point is, most artists and especially ones that I consider my favourites, do something to me in some way that goes beyond enjoying a tune or a lyric.  Aphex Twin is definitely in my top ten and almost certainly in my top three, but stands out as someone for whom their music doesn’t actually ‘move’ me in a typical way.  I can’t tell you what emotions I feel when I listen to Aphex Twin, because I’m not entirely sure there are any.  But I just know that I like being around it.  I like being in the company of the music.  If it were personified as a friend, it wouldn’t be someone who makes me laugh or makes me think, it would just be someone whose very presence alone makes me feel comfortable, even without saying or doing anything to warrant it.

The crux of it, and this has only occurred to me as I’ve thought about this entry and am typing it now, is that Aphex Twin remains to me as he was on that day in 1999.  An alternative glimpse into an alien world, a strange soundscape.  Knowing that, with all the drudgery and uniformality of art and society pushing envelopes with the speed of a glacier and the wit of a gossip columnist, there is someone out there who is different and is being so not out of any willful desire or affectation but because it is a natural extension of their personality – someone who, in the old cliche, beats to the drum of a different tune.  And along the way, they just happen to create breathtakingly beautiful, deranged and ridiculous music.

Which brings me onto the original motivation for this entry.  His first new release as Aphex Twin since 2001’s Druqks is the album Syro.  In short, it’s brilliant.  This is probably one of his more accessible albums, neatly combining his harsh drill’n’bass beats to a more ambient sound – in other words, exactly what made Windowlicker such a masterpiece for me.  The last track, snappily titled aisatsana [102] in particular shows that he can do genuine simplistic beauty, a lilting and melancholy piano piece as poignant as the equally gorgeous Avril 14th.  These songs, quiet and (despite his reputation) somehow feeling sincere, stick out from the rest of his output and, oddly, they are the songs that I actually start to feel a flicker of emotion towards.

After such a period of inactivity under the Aphex name, he has promised that this album is just the tip of an iceberg.  I certainly hope so, and if you haven’t heard his work before then I hope you give him a try.  Start with Syro, and depending on what you enjoy either branch left or right between ambient and cacophany.  Whichever positive direction you take, you will one day end up joining me under this strange blanket I’m sure.

2 comments on “On Aphex Twin

  1. raishimi33 says:

    Reblogged this on Raishimi33 and commented:
    Thoughts on Aphex Twin, by that mister Campkin.

  2. Reblogged this on myredabyss and commented:
    A great piece of writing on one of my favourite artists by my friend of twenty years.

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