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Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92

April 12, 2007

Within the past year or so my interest in ambient music, and electronic music in general, has skyrocketed. And yet I feel like I have only grazed the surface of the genre and all that it has to offer. I have a great love for Boards of Canada but ironically I had not even touched on the work of the other two Warp Records juggernauts and ambient pioneers Aphex Twin and Autechre until a few weeks ago. I was a bit hesitant about Aphex Twin. I had heard both good and bad things about him and it was kind of a crap shoot, but in any case I broke and picked up this album and was floored upon the first listen. Aphex Twin has been making electronic music for the better part of fifteen years, or over twenty if you take this albums title seriously, which you may not if you consider that Richard D. James is only thirty five years old. I heard rave reviews of this record but once again I wasn’t really expecting anything truly great, but it turns out that this album is almost perfect in what it strives to do. To put it plainly, this was the first truly great ambient techno (or IDM, Intelligent Dance Music) album, and it stands easily the tallest among Aphex Twin’s other material.

I think it is safe to say that this album is vastly influential in it’s subgenre, as it was released so long ago when there was really little else like it save maybe The Orb or very subdued techno, which was not really common at the time. The album definitely strives to do what other ambient albums do, that is to be under the surface of ones ears creating an atmosphere without the listener knowing it. But the curse of ambient music is that it is hard to prevent from being repetitive while still being relaxing and atmospheric. In that sense, Richard James splits the music down the middle by both a song and album basis. The first idea is to make the beats very soft and subdued, so to not be obnoxious. And yet they are still driving for some odd reason. Perhaps this is because they are everchanging and are switched up at comfortable intervals so to not be boring or conversely annoying. Synthesizers are subdivided with great precision, especially in Ageispolis which is touched with both relaxing flows of synthesizers and melodic ones as well. Half the songs are more uptempo almost dance songs, and the other half are very relaxing ambient songs, making the record surprisingly comfortable within it’s own specific set of ideas.

But what is really amazing is that every song has a fantastic hook, if not more than one in the same track. The sheer amount of quality material on 85-92 is at first kind of hard to absorb, because not all the songs try to do the same thing. In my opinion, the best song on the album is the opening Xtal, a set of relaxing beats played over an angelic layer of synthesizers and airy vocal noise. And yet after this dancy piece comes the albums longest song, the nine minute long Tha which is truly the most ambient of all songs on the album, meant to be taken in as background music. Some of the songs are more likely to be heard on a dance floor such as Pulsewidth and Delphium, and some are more specialized. Heliosphan sounds like the theme to your childhood trip to space camp, and “i” is a charming minute long ambient synthesizer drone that could have probably lasted five minutes more without being boring. And yet for how much the music is stretched within the specific mood and boundaries of the genre, all of these tunes are choice chill out music for the modern world. We Are The Music Makers is a common favorite and practically an electronica groove, and Green Calx is the albums run with acid and it works very well.

I think the issues a lot of IDM fans have with this album is the production, and to be honest that only gets to be a problem on a select few songs. Specifically, Heliosphan, Schottkey 7th Path, and Hedphelym all have very poor production and sound like they are being played through a wall of pillows and not nearly as crisply as the songs that come before and after them. Also, some songs have a bit of fuzz in the background, but this seems to actually increase the value of their ambiance. Other times, certain synthesizers just aren’t initiated quite right, specifically the backdrop beat-drone in the otherwise wonderful Ptolemy and a similar drone in Aegispolis. And to be honest, Hedphelym isn’t that great of a song. It’s just kind of unsettling poorly produced electronic noise. But I really do believe the good outweighs the bad here, and the bad is almost negligible anyway. And you know what, I know this album has been remastered so for all I know my copy may simply be outdated and the remaster could fix some or all of these issues.

Someone once told me Aphex Twin was a joke. For a time I took them seriously. And I can see where that is coming from, because some of the latter stuff he has done is just bizarre and not that enjoyable, but I think the best of Richard D. James’ work is worth digging through the crap to find. And at that, his best stuff is completely varied. Part of what makes this album so special is how influential it is, but I don’t judge albums on influence. I judge them on quality, and this is a compelling, fun, and chill classic. Whether you crank it and inspect it further or let it rest in the back of your mind, this album is a great piece of work. If there was even an ambient album to be taken seriously, it’s this.

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One comment

  1. In all of his years defining and refining what indeed constituted IDM, I’d call this his best album, period.

    …the “Come To Daddy” EP comes damn close, though.



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