At once accessible and enduringly strange, this remains a captivating, challenging peak.
The title of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 was perhaps the first joke that notorious prankster Richard D. James would foist upon the public, a misleading indication of the relaxed but nonetheless beat-driven, even danceable tracks contained within. When Aphex Twin followed that up with a second volume two years later, however, it so thoroughly embodied the amoebic, indefinite properties of ambient that even its packaging (a crucial element of the lore that’s since cropped up around the album) gives nothing to the listener. Sporting elaborate charts and pictographs in lieu of liner notes or even discernible song titles, the album’s only true clue to its contents lied in its cover. Made by James himself scratching the Aphex Twin logo into an old briefcase, the cover as photographed has a strange, alien quality, like the siding of a spaceship half-buried in the rusty sands of Mars, derelict but still unsettling in its implications.
One of the more notorious bits of RDJ apocrypha is the artist’s claim that he pushed himself into states of lucid dreaming to come up with the tracks, and whether that’s true or one of James’s countless instances of taking the piss, it’s not a wild claim based on the music. Many of the tracks have a slurred, bleary quality, half-clear and half-submerged. Opener “Cliffs” (the title for this, like all tracks is a semi-official designation devised by fan/future Warp employee Greg Eden) epitomizes this style. Fading up with female vocals that are chopped and screwed into echoing warbles of formless sound, the track then introduces a percolating synth pad pattern that drones sleepily for the next six minutes. “Curtains” similarly lays a looping foundation of a rising motif that is then interspersed with twinkling, distant punctuation and a haze of faint drone. Not yet composing with digital sequencing, James leaves in all inadvertent, infinitesimal pauses and gaps that might arise from analog programming, and it only adds to the sense of oneiric, semi-conscious atmosphere. Take “Domino,” which lives up to its title with a stumbling progression that weaves spikes of noise into its central composition to create the effect of echoes spiraling off in strange new directions, like staring into a mirror and seeing your reflection move independently of you.
There’s something more than a little eerie about such touches, and anyone seeking to throw on the album as a sleep aid should be warned: SAW II is one of the most unnerving ambient records ever made, filled with disturbing tone imagery without slipping into the simple groaning synths and static hiss that defines so much dark ambient. Only “Grey Stripe,” with its sheets of white noise interrupted by cheesy sci-fi wobbles and tape-loop eruptions of sound deep in the background, fits that description. Elsewhere, the more somber songs showcase James’s increasing compositional mastery. “Blue Calx” sounds like a ship stranded at sea, all submerged Morse code clicks contrasted with elegiac sighs of synth that roll like calming waves in the aftermath of a ruinous storm. “Radiator” sounds like a half-speed playback of the dream sequences in A Nightmare on Elm Street, its hollow ringing the sound of metal-tipped fingers tapping against the pipes of that film’s cramped boiler room. Squelches of noise add mini-jump scares, while contrapuntal riffs of trebly, jittery energy come across like the chase victim crying out against the mechanical progression of an evil force.
Some tracks are so elaborate that they suggest James could have had a lucrative second career as a film composer in the modern age of post-Social Network scores. “Hankie” is pure cyberpunk horror, with synths that manage to groan in a low end while floating over dead space, like a hovercraft overseeing civilians below with dystopian surveillance. “Weathered Stone,” with its beeping chimes dragged down by a skittering, brittle beat, takes early-‘90s video game chiptune and corrupts it. “Shiny Metal Rods” and “Window Sill” are neo-noir chillers for the urban jungle, trapped but cagey in their menace.
In spite of its dark atmosphere, though, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II is filled with some of James’s gentlest, most elegant work. “Mould” anticipates Burial by a decade, pitch-shifting vocals into androgynous blurts that hiccup over a wide space buoyed by notes that are held just a split-second too long, changing their light tone into something slack and strange. “Z Twig” and especially “Lichen” are warm, soothing delights, the former all twinkling beeps and the latter pulses of sunlit synth. “Lichen” is the most traditionally ambient thing here, barring perhaps the epic “Stone in Focus,” cut from the album for space limits when the album first moved from vinyl to CD (James has since restored it in digital copies available on his Warp store site). At 10 minutes, “Stone” is the second-longest track here, as well as arguably the simplest, a faint click track and a moaning burble of sound that crescendos before fading back down and starting again. That it has been a lost curio for so long is a shame; “Stone” may lack the sophisticated layering of much of the rest of the album, but it’s arguably the purest showcase for just how firmly James had control over his material by this stage.
Selected Ambient Works Vol. II would mark something of a crossroads for James. Its towering, monolithic oddity capped off an early run of releases that stretched and prodded acid techno with instrumental élan before arriving at this nebulous ecstasy crash. Future Aphex Twin releases would find James incorporate computer sequencing and programming into his work, which would result in tracks so dense that James began to resemble less a hyper-clever producer than an avant-garde composer. The seeds for that evolution are sown here, fits of inspiration scattered amid gurgling soundscapes and noirish howls. At once accessible and enduringly strange, this remains a captivating, challenging peak.