Collapse is wildly unpredictable and compelling.
Richard D. James remains a willful, breakbeat-creating weirdo who makes alien music with better craftsmanship than most producers out there, but we’ve reached a place as a digital culture where he can release Aphex Twin music in a way that seems to match his restlessness. SoundCloud has afforded James the opportunity to directly release as many songs as he’d like, but it also allows him to subtly wink at the impermanence of the internet by regularly creating new accounts, uploading piles of new and old music and then deleting it all. The problem is, in the four years since he returned from hiatus, this practice seems to have replaced more conventional studio releases. Because of this, any “proper” Aphex Twin release—no matter the length—feels like a gift.
At first, Collapse, his newest five-track EP, can feel inessential. Opening track “T69 collapse” is a jumbled rush that feels like a by-the-numbers Aphex Twin song—at least, it does for about one minute until the entire mood of the song shifts, and then shifts again later. These drastic shifts in tone are where the magic of Collapse lies: though only five tracks, the EP makes great strides in feeling like a full album’s worth of songs. James is more restless than normal here, and it suits him well: he flits in and out of moods and atmospheres, never repeating the same phrase twice, which is both initially disorienting and ultimately deeply satisfying. What could be a throwaway collection proves to be another reminder of his continued strength as a musician, and how much he can accomplish in just five tracks.
“1st 44” dazzles by being less outwardly flashy: it’s a heady trip full of skittering beats that sound so crisp, you have to wonder how long James spent polishing each of them, and he pairs them with rich, deep bass tones that represent some of the most aurally pleasing sounds in the Aphex Twin catalog. The song begins to gain speed as it progresses, but its tempo never gets especially fast. And, like the best Aphex Twin songs, hours could be spent studying the way the track moves, and how it’s never quite menacing but still produces a minor air of an unknown danger. James is remarkable in how easily he can unsettle the listener without a single word spoken, which is part of what makes “1st 44” the best song here.
And yet what’s most remarkable about Collapse is that every one of these songs are as worthy of granular examination as “1st 44.” “MT1 t29r2” matches the aforementioned track’s tone before pulling back and growing more severe, and then nearly everything drops out, replaced by the sounds of a synthesized harp, twinkling alongside an insect-like rat-a-tat. This mode repeatedly invades and retracts, keeping the listener off balance. Meanwhile, “abundance10edit[2 R8’s, FZ20m & a 909],” with its unsettling ghost voices echoing against James’ 909 beats, then pulls us back into a place of bass-heaviness, briefly trying on a classic dubstep warble just long enough to make one wish he’d use it just a little bit more, before immediately dropping it. We end on “pthex,” the shortest track of the bunch. It brings the album back up to a more exhilarating speed, but an unsettling tone glides through beneath its driving beat, making the song feel sickly and haunted. We’re treated to a 22-second grinding halt, before he sends the listener careening into the classically Aphex Twin rush that “T69 collapse” only flirted with. Past this, he plays with ebb and flow in a way that feels like a victory lap—here to remind you that he’s still Richard D. James, and he’s still remarkably good at what he does.
Chances are, no matter the technology used, Aphex Twin will never again reach the prolific heights he displayed in the ‘90s. Quantity isn’t everything, though, and at just shy of half an hour, Collapse is wildly unpredictable and compelling.