Richard D. James, better known under his moniker Aphex Twin, is among those one in a million artists you can credit as being a driving force behind the formative years of a genre. Similar to Black Sabbath’s nurturing influence on metal or The Doors’ fathering effect on classic rock, the music of Aphex Twin moulded electronica far and wide, from IDM to acid to techno.
It could just be me, but when envisioning the history of some genres, it’s not any stretch of the imagination to call something like rock or metal ‘old’. My dad listened to it, right? But with popular electronic music, each time I hear about a new album reaching an age milestone it’s a complete surprise attack.
Daft Punk’s Homework just turned 20? You’re kidding. Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is turning 25? Fuck off.
But it’s true. The forerunner for IDM, ambient and acid music is celebrating a quarter century on February 12th 2017. Let’s take a close look to celebrate.
What did Aphex Twin conjure in Selected Ambient Works 85-92 which has stood the test of time for 25 years? We’ve chopped up his magnum opus, ranking each song from worst to best.
In case you didn’t know a thing about Richard D. James, this song title may seem a little off. Strap in, it’s only getting stranger from here.
Later in his career, Aphex seemed to derive pleasure from shocking, even terrifying deliveries of his music (Windowlicker being the utmost example). Hedphelym rides in on biting, warning-siren synth samples emanating through Halloween chords. It’s an early incarnation of a technique James would later master, but for now, it missed the mark.
Boasting the shortest song title as well as running length of any track on the album, I serves as a glowing interlude between the ambient front-end of SAW and it’s more thumping, experimental latter half.
Although a beautiful track, it’s strength is only realised in it’s placement.
Schottkey 7th Path
While brooding, disparate and altogether more effective than the aforementioned Hedphelym, this track falls short in many of the same ways.
Schottkey 7th Path sees James once again delve into minor chords, this time interspersed with swelling synths which would feel more at home before the record’s change in direction.
We Are The Music Makers
Although this song has found popularity due to it’s sampling of Gene Wilder’s line “we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it’s amongst the weaker on the album.
Not that it’s a weak track without context. Think of it as a nine amongst tens.
Fun fact, Wilder’s line is the opening couplet to Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s 1873 poem Ode.
The closer to Selected Ambient Works 85-92 could easily appear as a set-closer to any modern, ambient or IDM heavy set. Actium has the bass line, kick beat and tempo you want to feel live, while retaining the otherworldly aura which makes the rest of this album so perfect.
Tha marks the second track on the record. A lumbering bass line and some Eno-esque, unclear vocal samples are it’s main features.
Right about halfway up the Selected Ambient Works 85-92 ladder in terms of quality, it doesn’t bring to the table any unique features absent from the rest of the record.
Aciiiiiiiiid. There’s a reason Aphex Twin is credited as a prime influences in this sphere of electronica, and early tracks like Ptolemy are where to begin your research.
What’s now classified as one of the ‘classic’ synthesizer sounds, James’ experimental attitudes with a resonance filter were groundbreaking, bizarre and divisive all at once back in ’92.
Opening with a high-hat rhythm which shows remarkable foresight for dub signatures which wouldn’t properly appear for another five years, Heliosphan saw Aphex Twin really hit his stride in occupying a grey area between dance and ambient music.
Tracks sitting on this same fence (of what would later be classified IDM) were heard as early as the 80s, but James was undoubtedly one of the masterminds who unearthed the sound from it’s underground birthplace.
This track is as juicy as it gets. Imagine it’s the early 90s; Ice, Ice Baby, Smells Like Teen Spirit and Creep were the worldwide hits of recent times and suddenly you hear this… disgusting song.
Categorised by cacophonous electro samples, a high BPM and one of the filthiest acid techno licks ever written, songs like Green Calx were known to scare off early Aphex fans. But they came around.
Xtal is the song you show naysayers who spit in your face with comments like ‘electronic music can’t be emotional.’
Cinematic, littered by noise yet somehow orchestral, this track epitomises the ideal of this album; a Frankenstein mashing up of different facets of electronic music which unbelievably just made perfect sense.
Top three baby. Written, obviously, somewhere between 1985 and 1982, it’s bamboozling to hear just how similar Delphium is to Aphex Twin’s 2016 Cheetah EP.
The bass hook, the swinging percussion and synth evolution throughout this track were just way too far ahead of their time. I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if someone told me Delphium was released yesterday.
Just when you think this is going to be another voluminous, ambient track the likes of I or We Are The Music Makers, the bass melody comes in, pushing the rest of the mix out of it’s road with a frankly diabolical level of gain.
Bringing in a clean synth bass to lead an electro track is something that’s curiously had a resurgence in the sphere of IDM 2015-present. Influence, time repeating itself, or another instance of godly foresight from James?
The crown jewel of Selected Ambient Works II has got to be Pulsewidth. It gets everything right, the bouncy bass line, echoing high-end synths and techno’s imprinted kick, clap rhythm all conspire here into a perfect song.
It somehow continues to occupy the sphere of modern techno through simply being so prolific as to have seeped into every facet of what the genre has become. Any compilation of techno, IDM or even beatier ambient music will send your mind back to Pulsewidth, whether by accident or clear influence.
A staple of everything electronic music has evolved into in the 25 years since it was released, it sits in an unreachable throne room occupied by a select few others, an endlessly derivative template from which future music will ceaselessly hark back to.
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