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Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works Vol. II

May 25, 2007

Unlike Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Aphex Twin’s second LP did not blaze any trails or sell a huge amount of copies, but it did solidify a place for Richard J. James in the electronic music business and give him breathing room to expand his repertoire and explore his creative boundaries. For fans that had heard Selected Ambient Works 85-92, the transition to Vol. II is marked most accurately by the wonderful minute long simple “i”, or perhaps the nine minute long Tha. Both are of the same style as their albums successor, that is, sometimes beatless ambient chords that create an atmosphere. And yet, what these two songs do in many ways don’t quite reflect on the spirit of SAW2. On Vol. II, the focus is completely directed towards ambient atmospheres and there is no upbeat IDM or pop hooks to support the synthesizers. In plain terms, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II isn’t nearly as good as 85-92, but it was the necessary next step to truly establish James as an ambient artist. For fans of this kind of music, this is a feast of overly lengthy atmospheres, which are disturbing as often as they are comforting.

One of this albums biggest weaknesses is how much it confuses people. When people hear about a double album by a respected artist, they expect it to be engaging, and in fact SAW2 is exactly the opposite. It is a shapeless, aimless album with no real focus on song structure. Most all of the songs repeat the same synthesizer loops with little to no switchups, and half the time the loops are annoying or disturbing. The perfect example of this is the six and a half minutes of complete garbage that is Radiator. There are a few more like it as well, songs that would be good for horror flicks but simply drone too long to be useful. But perhaps this was the intention of the artist. If songs like “i” did not go long enough, this might have been the cure for that problem. But even fans of ambient will be slightly turned off by how little some of these songs change. These songs are simply not meant to be focused on, and are instead successful as passive backgrounds.

I won’t make the excuse that this isn’t an album for everyone or that it is very difficult to understand to downplay the fact that it isn’t quite all that it could be. Some of the songs are downright bad and should have been pitched, and all of the songs could have been chopped in half and would fit snugly onto one CD without the effect being damaged. And if he did that, the album would have actually been less of a task to work through and understand, as well as being less downright boring. Everyone makes the complaint that double albums could be shaved down to one CD, but for this I really mean it. Only two or three songs on the first disk are even worth anyones time for repeated listens, as most of them are creepy and not all that effective. The opening Cliffs is decent, as well as Rhubarb, and maybe Tree. The sharp increase in quality on the second disk is downright discombobulating. There are only two or three BAD songs here. Some personal favorites include Blue Calx (just as good as it’s cousins Green Calx and Yellow Calx), Parallel Stripes, Hexagon, and Lichen.

This is not a great album. It’s a good album, definitely, and it’s an important album for Aphex Twin, but you won’t want it unless you have already dabbled in his work and know what kind of an album you are in for. These are not songs so much as they are aural tools. And they aren’t even always completely original. He pulls the Eno cards more than once with varying success, and the more original pieces are unfortunately rather dull. And once again, like every other Aphex Twin album besides 85-92, this album has absolutely wonderful high points and deplorable low points. I can’t even say that it was completely worth it for me just to check it out from the library. But as I said before, this was a needed step to establish James’ body of work and has a select few really great songs on it.

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2 comments

  1. This is actually my favorite Aphex album, but I absolutely love Ambient music. The whole idea of ambient when Eno coined the genre was that you should be able to be engaged listening to it, but also easily tune it out to background noise. This album achieves that perfectly!

    Much better in my opinion than the first compilation, which is much less true ambient music, and more just noodling. I love Ambient Works 2 as a bedtime record, a studying record, or having something in the background to chat over. You’re right that it’s not the most engaging, but that’s the point.


  2. I like the album a lot, but just as the person above states, I really like ambient. I can completely understand why most of this album would seem boring, but I don’t think i’d have it any other way. Also, another bonus is this record has one of my favourite Aphex songs, nay favourite songs of all on it: Rhubarb. I felt like I died when I heard it for the first time. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ver heard.

    Good review, seems honest to me.



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