Holy Hell! The Richard D. James Album Turns 20

Holy Hell! The Richard D. James Album Turns 20

The beauty of this nebulous, amoebic music remains undiminished 20 years later.

Aphex Twin’s early recordings are notable, among other reasons, for their analog construction. The tape hiss on Selected Ambient Works ‘85-‘92, the primitive soundscapes of its successor, and the retro pound of Roland machines on the AFX EPs all diverge noticeably from the smooth, seamlessly sequenced rave music that explodes adjacent to Richard D. James’s development. These imperfections may well have been what made James so popular, lending a conservative notion of “authenticity” to the artist that might explain why he was a gateway for so many rockists into the realm of dance music. The Richard D. James Album marked a shift for the producer, programmed mostly on James’s computer and thus opened to the advanced possibilities of music software. But instead of using easier sequencing and channel separation for convenience, James mined these digital tools to craft his most dizzyingly complex tracks to date, wedding his natural skill to the technology required to let it fully bloom.

Just compare opening track “4” to anything else in the Aphex library to that point. Immediately contrasting skittering snare pads with the relaxed tempo of a quasi-ambient synth hums floating above, the arrangement only grows stranger from there. The high, violin-like squeal of a pinging digital note rings out like a siren, and the composition frequently collapses in on itself, grinding to a halt before exploding out. It’s the sound of cells multiplying, an elemental yet astonishing process that avoids sounding too predetermined by its own unstable time signatures as well as charming moments of spontaneity in the recorded sounds of James being interrupted by his dad’s phone call. These small blips bridge James’s early work, some of it (if you believe the date range given for SAW) recorded in his teens, with this new breakthrough, tacitly arguing that he would have been making music like this even earlier were the technology caught up to his imagination.

The unpredictable movements of “4” prefigure an album that is impossible to pin down. “Peek 824545201” takes the clanging analog techno of AFX and folders it over itself like tempered steel, thwarting time signatures for constant elasticity. “Fingerbib,” meanwhile is like a club lullaby, all chirping synths and cooing undercurrents but set to a beat you can still step to, if sleepily so. The breakdown, when it comes, inexplicably makes the track even more delicate, adding soaring textures that cover the composition like a blanket. “Yellow Calx,” the latest in the producer’s Calx series, differs from other tracks bearing similar titles in bucking ambient drift for drum n’ bass. But this is dnb of a skeletal form, sounding as if it were banged out not on a computer but on the abandoned, oxidized metal beams that form calx in the first place.

The scattershot nature of the material does not mean that the album is a total departure, however; in fact, James’s decision to title the LP as self-portrait is borne out in the instrumental autobiography of several tracks. “Cornish Acid” cements the throwback to James’ youth by taking its title from a tongue-in-cheek term his adolescent mates concocted as a means of putting Cornwall on the electronic map with Detroit, Chicago and the like. Its burbling, rubbery bounce puts it in line with AFX. “Goon Gumpas,” named for a hill in west Cornwall, is the album’s standout ambient number, though the inclusion of a string arrangement forecasts James’s gradual acceptance as composer as much as producer. Elsewhere, even trendy songs like “Corn Mouth” traces the throughline from AFX’s early acid techno to contemporary jungle, mutating pounding beats into dnb chaos and shooting the thing through with a bracing, wet squelch that sounds suspiciously like the liquid moan of Miles Davis’ playing during his electric period.

Having established himself as an avant-rave genius and ambitious ambient programmer, James here comes out as the most unexpected popsmith of the ‘90s, epitomizing the decade’s incessant search for a musical self by casting that irresoluteness against itself in tracks that are as catchy as they are baffling. To be sure, there’s nothing on here as chart-ready as “Windowlicker” or “Come to Daddy,” but album highlight “Girl/Boy Song” may coalesce the entire LP’s forward-thinking production into, ironically, its most accessible track. A mini electronic pastoral devoted to innocent young love, the song is a précis of the entire album, gathering classical instrumentation, delicate synthesized phrases and manic beats into something that approximates the sheer exhilaration and terror of budding affection. The rise of Britpop produced far too much backward-looking dreck, but this one song is the closest anyone in the era came to capturing the wild, juvenile energy of the early Beatles, as well as that band’s later sophistication.

In the album’s convoluted mesh of fussy analog programming and layered digital sequencing is the blueprint for James’s subsequent discography. It is a move away from the precocious ambition of his earlier records into the full compositional prowess that has made his work across the intervening two decades so beguiling and singular. It’s remarkable, given how popular Aphex Twin is even among those with a distaste for electronic music, how rarely he has been directly copied. Every track tends to sound like three tracks in one, and if that sounds like pandemonium, it can be, but the measured pace stresses the possibilities of James’s new gear. Though this perhaps marks the ramping up of James’s musical and personal peevishness, the beauty of this nebulous, amoebic music remains undiminished 20 years later.

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