Aphex Twin – Syro
Richard D. James never quite disappeared after the release of Drukqs in 2001. He merely stepped backstage for the past decade or so, continuing to release some little-publicized music under pseudonyms and a handful of Analord EPs in the mid-2000s. But even if the last ten years was short on actual Aphex music, James’ presence could be felt all over. Aphex Twin, one of the singular and most influential electronic musicians of the last few decades, shirked the spotlight just as computers and production software became more accessible and inexpensive than ever before. Couple that with the advent of sharing platforms like MySpace, YouTube and SoundCloud over the years, and suddenly everyone was a DJ or a producer, many of whom digested the Aphex oeuvre as they grew up and used it as a touchstone in their own work. And while on the surface, it may seem like an odd notion to, say, compare the current EDM/post-dubstep scene to James’ catalog, it becomes more obvious when you think of how those DJs marry shards of noise to hooky melodies like AFX did or how someone like Skrillex frequently borrows James’ black humor and spooky sound bites à la “Come To Daddy.”
So how, in 2014, after years of imitation and several pop music generations long gone, would a new Aphex Twin album hold up? As it turns out, damn well. The beauty of Syro is how efficient it is, how it consolidates all of James’ strengths, touching on everything from rubbery funk to soothing ambience to slippery drum’n’bass, without losing his energetic inventiveness and his strong melodic sensibility. It winds up as his most accessible, welcoming record yet. Where Drukqs was expansive and messy, Syro covers just as much ground yet is tight and focused. If there’s any disappointment here, it’s that there’s not much here he hasn’t done before, but that’s so matter because even after years of acolytes, the Aphex style hasn’t lost its luster. In some ways, because technology has improved, it sounds better than ever, with the record grabbing on first listen and revealing intricate manipulations with each play. Lead single “minipops 67 [120.2] (source field mix)” kicks the record off with a virtual tour of Aphex’s many moods, while the slick centerpiece “XMAS_EVET10  [thanaton3 mix]” bubbles along on waves of humming tones, squelching synths, and even a few vocal snippets of James’ family. He’ll get loose and moody with the glitchy chiptune-meets-late-night-techno of “CIRCLONT6A [141.98] [syrobonkus mix],” and he’ll stop for moments of great beauty, like on the fragile piano piece “aisatsana ,” one of James’ simplest, prettiest tracks, that closes everything out. It’s a record that is successful not for having many distinct highlights or how it stakes out new territory. Instead, Syro excels by having a consistently gratifying vision that works just as well in the background as it does up close. The idea that James can return with an Aphex Twin record 13 years later, after pop music’s most prolific decade, let alone electronic’s, and still sound fresh only reaffirms his command of technique and songwriting. It may not be as head-spinning as Richard D. James Album or as masterful as Selected Ambient Works 85-92, but it’s a great record through and through and an easy choice as an entry point for the uninitiated.