When it comes to observing general trends in electronic music, there seem to be two polarized sections that some of its famous musicians inhabit. The first, and most popular, space is occupied by Deadmau5, Skrillex and their contemporaries — chart-topping dance-fillers who deliver the euphoria of pure entertainment. Then, there are the forward-thinking types who would rather sit in their basements making nondanceable beats than show their faces.
Of course, these juxtapositions pop up in every genre. Just think about indie rock vs. pop rock; they have different attitudes and expectations and are generated through different circumstances, yet they are technically classified as “rock.” However, the “indie” side of electronic music is labeled as Intelligent Dance Music, an unfortunate stigma that widens the spectrum in electronic music even further. In the nearly 20 years since the term was first coined, IDM has been thoroughly denounced as inappropriate by the very artists it describes. Furthermore, the term IDM does a disservice to these musicians because it suggests that they have adopted a holier-than-thou mindset due to the fact that their music is somehow “smarter.” Who could be so forward-thinking that they inspire such a loaded term to describe a brand-new genre? The best answer is Aphex Twin.
Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, from Cornwall, U.K. has cast a large shadow on the face of electronic music. He has only five proper studio albums, the last one released in 2001. His debut album, “Selected Ambient Works 85-92,” celebrates its 20th anniversary this month and has proven to be very influential. But before we get into that, it needs to be said that James is not your typical faceless electronic musician.
In 1995, James’ devilish, toothy grin graced the album “…I Care Because You Do” and this lone disturbing image would continue to identify this mysterious figure in his new releases and music videos. “OK, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” it says as you experience Aphex Twin’s darker and more aggressive ventures into the drum ‘n’ bass genre. James seems eager to play a jokester and has a penchant for making wild claims such as having 100 hours of unreleased music, or that he can incorporate lucid dreaming into his music-making process. At the same time, he is so prolific that he has recorded under nearly a dozen pseudonyms and has formed his releases with many eccentricities, including a steganogram that shows his face during a song and a double album whose song titles are mostly in the Cornish language.
Regardless of his claims, it seems clear that James was a child prodigy when it came to electronic music. James allegedly began producing music at age 12, and by the age of 14 he had started work that eventually was released on his debut album. He may now be in his 40s and have become a dark, twisted establishment in electronic music, largely drifting away from the ambient house sound, but “SAW 85-92” is his definitive work. The strange truth is that where Aphex Twin is dirty and furious, SAW 85-92 is just as refined and elegant. The album is the sound of a wide-eyed youngster accidentally perfecting his craft. What is even stranger is that SAW 85-92 doesn’t include any of Aphex Twin’s “signature” songs. Tracks “Digeridoo” and “On” were recorded around the same time but are not included. But it hardly matters because SAW 85-92 is about as expertly crafted as an electronic album can be. The album is basically ambient house but incorporates many syncopated African rhythms and standard acid house instruments and techniques. This synthesis creates a liveliness that, while not normally found in ambient music, is firmly planted in the genre. The songs are certainly beat-oriented, but the ambient mindset makes every synthesizer line sound brooding at its brightest (“Pulsewidth”, “Ptolemy”). The driving bass lines of “Actium” and “Tha” are covered in a dark shroud that James releases only in brief instances to capture our attention before they shrink into the background. There is an incredible sophistication in SAW 85-92 that stems well beyond James’ age and has now become the expectation for every “IDM” artist. As the sample in “We are the Music Makers” suggests, James is the dreamer of his successor’s dreams.