Posts Tagged ‘aphex twin’

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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My Twenty Favorite Aphex Twin Tracks

June 16, 2009

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of one of my favorite artists, Richard D. James (most commonly known as Aphex Twin) and I’ve been kind of sorting through in my head which of his songs are my favorites. I haven’t numbered anything on this list because I think that would be both disrespectful and useless, as my favorite Aphex tracks are always changing anyway. There is a loose hierarchy here, but in general I’m taking this as an opportunity not to judge anything objectively but more to explore some of my favorite songs.

Once again, these just scrape the surface of my favorite RDJ tracks, so before you complain about stuff that is missing from the list, I promise you that I’m not trying to compile a timeline or history here. I’m just trying to aknowledge some good songs. I tried to get youtube links for as many songs as I could, and the official music videos for the songs that have them (“On,” “Windowlicker” and “Nannou”). Understand that the sound quality of videos on youtube are inferior to what you get from playing these songs out of a stereo or nice headphones, so the best way to hear them would be to dig in and explore Aphex Twin’s music for yourself, and in the process uncover some of your own favorites.

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Hangable Auto Bulb

Laughable Butane Bob

Aphex Twin’s first foray into the “Drill ‘n Bass” style which would come to characterize his later work was the Hangable Auto Bulb EP series, which had more than a few gems of the genre. The full picture of the series comes when all eight songs in the series are put together in the Hangable Auto Bulb compilation, and when you put them all back to back, “Laughable Butane Bob” stands out most to me. The experimental rhythm plays out perfectly, and this is the perfect introduction to RDJ’s new, crazy style, and the methodology of listening to his breakbeat work is still the same as it is for his creation; let it simmer a while and it’s pure funk.

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...I Care Because You Do

Acrid Avid Jam Shred

By the time fans of the Selected Ambient Works albums realized that the first song on Aphex Twin’s new album was an anagram for Richard David James, it had probably already occurred to them that the track was a scrambled incarnation of everything James had previously worked on. The song features the hard techno beats of his early AFX days slowed down to a creeping pace, playful electronic flourishes present on Selected Ambient Works 85-92, and elegant atmospherics that would have been at home on Selected Ambient Works Volume 2. The fact that all of these elements work together to great success and without seeming forced to make both this song and …I Care Because You Do indicates that James is not only talented as a musician, but also as an arranger.

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Analord 10

Fenix Funk

The only EP in the Analord series, Aphex Twin’s extensive return to analog synthesizer programming, to be released under the name “Aphex Twin” as opposed to “AFX” was Analord 10, and it was released before any of the other EPs, which were thereafter released in numerical order. Also, Analord 10 was packaged with a full sized binder with spots for the rest of the Analords. This odd non sequitur is understandable when you listen to Analord 10, as the EP contains arguably the best two songs in the series, the most notable being “Fenix Funk.” The track contains not only the smoothest of James’ funky breakbeats but also some of his most distinctive atmospherics. The rest of the series is downhill from this track, which fuses styles of RDJ’s two most significant discographies, thus making his persona that much more decipherable.

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Drukqs

Vordhosbn

Drukqs was the final frontier for Aphex Twin’s Drill ‘n Bass exploration, and “Vordhosbn” might be the highlight of the album’s more hard hitting half. It moves at a breakneck tempo with mile-a-minute development, hitting on more great new ideas in just under five minutes than most other Drill ‘n Bass artists can manage to pull off in entire albums. It’s got the intense thought provoking rhythms in God only knows what time signature as well as subtle a subtle atmospheric backdrop. Despite the complexity, this also manages to be one of the more exciting and listenable Drill ‘n Bass achievements Aphex Twin has yet put out, and hopefully not the last.

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Analogue Bubblebath

Analogue Bubblebath

The song that gave RDJ’s first massive EP series it’s name, Analogue Bubblebath is almost too humble to be a namesake. It’s whimsical ascending and descending synths accompany soft rhythms to make a finished product that contrasts with the majority of the acid techno in the series. The song more closely resembles the work James would subsequently release on his first album under the Aphex Twin name, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. With that said, “Analogue Bubblebath” foreshadows great things to come while still holding its own as a fun, relaxed cut, and a classic of early IDM.

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On

On

Aphex Twin’s early single “On” bridges two of his styles, the early IDM of ┬áthe Selected Ambient Works albums and the harsher rhythmic noise on …I Care Because You Do. The song and it’s accompanying music video directed by Jarvis Cocker are composed in similar ways, moving at a frenetic pace and progressively adding and subtracting different parts of the composition. The rhythm is too rough for the track to be danceable, and too eventful and funky to be ambient, thus moving away from any of James’ previously explored genres. In this sense it is one of the earliest examples of his avant garde single series, even more fun and stylish than “Digeridoo” and the beginning of his experimental modus operandi which would persist through the rest of his career.

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Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2

Rhubarb

The best justice I can do to explain Rhubarb is that it’s one of the most beautiful things ever recorded. I say this with great conviction. Of course beauty is subjective, but hearing is also believing, and this song is one of the most believable that Aphex Twin has ever composed. It is Richard D. James submitting himself completely to the concept of beauty and contentment through Eno styled ambient music, and the end product even gives Eno a run for his money. Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 is an album filled with progressive ambient experimentation, but throughout the the album are a few tracks of simple clarity, this being the most poignant on merit of delicate songwriting alone. I can’t think of anything less pretentious that fully does this song justice than saying that it is not only music you can live to but is also music that you can die to.

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Windowlicker

Nannou

The Windowlicker single may have rode on the strength of whimsical humor, the title track being Aphex Twin’s most fun single to date and “Equation” an indulgent experiment, but that makes the juxtaposition of the last song on the single, “Nannou,” that much more fascinating. The song was created with nothing but samples from music boxes: winding, clicking, clacking, chiming. The song is not only pleasing as a pretty, nostalgic gem, but also a piece of aural art crafted from things that have themselves already been crafted. Even in this musical sampling culture, it’s rare that we get something sampled that is so humble and quaint.

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Selected Ambient Works 85-92

Tha

The longest piece on Selected Ambient Works 85-92 contrasts with the rest of the album rather heavily. While “Tha” shares the infectious beat and playful synthesizer melodies that the rest of the album possesses, the song is also easily the most forward thinking the album has to offer, less pop or dance and more ambient and experimental. Clocking in at nine minutes, the piece is a slowly shifting ambient composition which immediately brings to mind contrasting speeds involved with the visual aspect of a train ride. The song represents the best of what SAW 85-92 has to offer, both cutting edge as well as vintage. This is what the year 3000 will sound like in the year 4000.

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Richard D. James Album

4

That Aphex Twin would ever be inspired by classical music was a head scratcher concept before 1997 when he released Richard D. James Album, which cemented him as a modern composer. The album’s opener, “4,” is one of its more poignant pieces, not only utilizing beautiful string parts but also structuring breakbeats in ways that imitate the structures of classical composition. But the breakbeats are hard and piercing in texture, making the resulting song both relaxing and riveting. When avant-garde classical ensemble Alarm Will Sound played the song on their 2005 Aphex Twin cover album Acoustica, it only further proved that compositions like these will be remembered for a long time as modern masterpieces.

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Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2

Blue Calx

The songs that fans of Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 would play for a non-ambient fan might be the more digestible tracks, particularly “Rhubarb,” “Lichen,” “Stone in Focus” or “Hexagon.” Although all of these tracks are great, they aren’t part of the more experimental three quarters of the brilliant double album, and “Blue Calx” might cover that essential experimental nature while still being accessible to new ears. It is ambient music at heart, both appropriate for background or forefront listening, and it encapsulates contrasting emotions, both safety and unease. The slow, unique beat mixes with the melancholy synthesizers and the sound of a clock ticking to make one of the most unique and memorable tracks on SAW2.

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Selected Ambient Works 85-92

We Are The Music Makers

“We Are The Music Makers” is typically noted as being the exception to the rule for Selected Ambient Works 85-92 as the only track to contain a vocal sample, but is usually only cited to differentiate the album from it’s house and dance music contemporaries as being more focused on texture and less hook oriented. But the song stands tall as one of the album’s finest moments, featuring an unstoppable groove and the signature ever-shifting dynamics that would come to be hallmarks of Intelligent Dance Music. And that single vocal sample from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, although originally utilized by 808 State, could be considered his original mission statement and will echo through the minds of chilled out early morning ravers for years to come.

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...I Care Because You Do

Alberto Basalm

In terms of sheer listenability, one would be hard pressed to find an RDJ track more addictive and pleasing than “Alberto Basalm.” By far the most popular track on …I Care Because You Do, the mysterious rhythmic groove is pure noir artistry, constructing its beat out of the sounds of cigarette lighters and clanging garbage cans. If I could think of a visual artist to paralell the song, Hopper would be the most appropriate comparison. It’s the Aphex Twin song that, were it tangible and visible, would be the modern masterpiece that the masses would oogle over in a prestigious art museum. His “Mystery and Melancholy of a Beat,” perhaps?

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Windowlicker

Windowlicker

Of Aphex Twin’s experimental singles, “Windowlicker” may be the most outwardly commercial. It is, after all, clearly a shot at the porn industry, as exemplified by its electronic funk style and accompanying over-the-top music video directed by Chris Cunningham. But both of the aforementioned elements come together to make one of Aphex Twin’s most successful and memorable songs to date. The chorus is classic, funky ass sexual chocolate, and the free flowing rhythm is easily Aphex’s most compelling, varied and memorable. And again, I stress, the video. I am told that Aphex Twin once said that he wanted to put a face to his music, which existed in a genre of faceless artists. After hearing this song and seeing that video, you’ll never forget his face, sense of humor, and unique musicality.

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Drukqs

Avril 14th

It is strange that Aphex Twin’s most well known track is also one of his most uncharacteristic. From the illegally used sample on a Lonely Island short on Saturday Night Live to being used in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, this song is the Aphex Twin track that any given person is most likely to have heard due to its wide exposure and undying popularity. 2001’s Drukqs contained a treasure trove of simple melodies played on piano and prepared piano, and “Avril 14th” is likely the most memorable. It’s the walking-to-Sunday-school melody that even the most naive of children probably wouldn’t believe in when their age had a single digit, and yet it seems to take every listener to a simple, happy place like no other track. That the song is flanked on the album by two of RDJ’s harshest breakbeat tracks is a testament to his versatility.

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Richard D. James Album

Girl/Boy Song

While Richard D. James claims that he wrote “Girl/Boy Song” as a response to the fact that most songs are either “boy” songs or “girl” songs and thus wanted to make a song for both genders, you would guess at first listen that it was meant for asexual aliens. However, upon repeated listens the song opens up like a flower, and new perspectives become more salient. It is possible that “Girl/Boy Song” is actually a realistic love story of simple melodic beauty (fairy-tale pizzicato string arrangements) juxtaposed next to frenetic insanity (intense, disarming breakbeats). The end product is the epitome of what RDJ Album has to offer, and in some ineffable way beautiful and human, an aural representation of what real, yearning love might sound like.

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Drukqs

Btoum-Roumada

Drukqs was an album of several principle ideas, one of which was the exploration of simple melodies which proved Richard D. James to be not only a master of electronics but also of classical composition. “Btoum-Roumada” may only be one of the album’s melodic triumphs, but it is the one that pops out the most, embossed with the use of a twinkling organ. While James may have emerged from the acid house underground, we can practically hear him playing from a quaint church on this track. The spirituality and finality of the song are enough to make it one of his most memorable and undeniably touching, and the ending brings the most satisfying epiphany – ah! This song isn’t alone. Is it possible that James has a heart under his mechanical exterior?

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Selected Ambient Works 85-92

Xtal

The first song on the first album released under the Aphex Twin name, “Xtal” is pure IDM bliss. It marks the beginning as well as the immediate perfection of one of the many styles that Richard D. James would pick up and quickly move on from in his heyday, and it is all the more significant because those albums released under the Aphex Twin moniker would reach a mass audience. For that reason, “Xtal” is often the first song anyone hears by RDJ, and not inappropriately. Other IDM artists would try to replicate the subtle beauty of this track for years. It’s not like James’ was the first person to incorporate breathy female vocals, subtle beats and glowing ambient textures into dance music, but I’ll be damned if anyone has done it quite so well since.

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Come to Daddy

Flim

While the title track of the Come to Daddy EP might have been one of Aphex Twin’s most successful experimental pop jokes that resulted in as much approval as disgust, the track that proceeds it will turn whatever expression it elicited into a warm grin. Despite the fact that “Flim” is one of the most widely loved songs among Aphex Twin fans, many have a hard time expressing exactly why. After all, its not like this was the first RDJ track to mix delicate melody with an ever-changing ambient breakbeat, but this is certainly where he masters the art. The rhythm is, like his other breakbeat tracks, carefully planned and different for each measure, and thus stays engaging as well as structured throughout. Rhythmic flourishes echo into the back of the track while the simple synthesizer dances under a simplistic, soaring string part. It’s grace is so aurally embossed that it almost doesn’t even need to be explained once heard, forwards or backwards. A true gem.

And…

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26 Mixes for Cash

Raising the Titanic (Big Drum Mix)

Found on the 2003 remix compilation 26 Mixes for Cash, Raising the Titanic might at first be of debatable authorship, either of Richard D. James or composer Gavin Bryars who wrote the original minimalist piece Sinking the Titanic in 1969. But Aphex Twin undoubtedly makes the piece his own with his electronic rendition. The track is worthy of its new name, and if we are judging it by the age old avant-garde standard of whether songs match their titles, it could be argued that Raising the Titanic is even more accomplished than the piece from which it finds its origin. Possibly the hugest sounding recording ever put to plastic, the song almost seems to be too big for its own environment; the thundering beat sputters while it lumbers and the strings and choral samples are often violently distorted, but not without singular beauty. It is the beautiful sound of decay, heaved upwards by the colossal rhythm and yearning melodies ad infinitum. The arrangement might as well be the most ambitious James has ever attempted, and he succeeds perfectly at combining an incredibly strong beat with beautiful atmospherics, and the result is a lucid masterpiece.

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Aphex Twin – Drukqs

December 13, 2007

Having a body of work as diverse as Richard D. James sets up a lot of unreasonable expectations for fans and critics. From his early work in the late eighties through his four albums recorded under the name “Aphex Twin” and countless other recordings under other names, RDJ has blazed trails and created many unique styles that characterize him. Through those four studio albums, RDJ pioneered and arguably perfected the genres of IDM, ambiance, orchestral electro horror, jungle, drill ‘n bass, synth pop, and more. The expectation for a new Aphex Album, especially one after a long hiatus and one to lead off the new millennium, were surely extravagant and overblown. What will James concoct next, and how will it shake the musical world?

What people seem to forget is that Richard D. James makes whatever the hell kind of music he wants, and has no interest in what the critics think of him whatsoever. Whatever satiates his desire to create is enough. What made the critics unsatisfied with the double album Drukqs was that no one was quite ready to stomach the fact that he can be just as effective working comfortably within his boundaries as he does when pushing them.

I recall the man saying that Drukqs was intended to be an album for the fans. This kind of surprised me. An album for the fans, rather than for himself? Sounds like a plan. He clearly worked hard to touch on many of his previously honed styles within the album. Any fan of Aphex has noticed and possibly ailed over the fact that he never quite does the same thing twice. With the exception of the soft white futuristic pop of Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Aphex re-hashes just about every style he has pioneered. Gwely Mernans is an ambient soundscape comparable in quality to it’s brethren from Selected Ambient Works Volume 2. He spends the entire stretch of Gwarek 2 experimenting with disturbing noises, reminiscent of the bizarre psychosis of I Care Because You Do.

The biggest rehash in the album is that of his breakbeats which he pioneered on Richard D. James Album, which he spends about half the album playing with to varying success. On one hand, James is a breakbeat master, and just about everything he puts out will be unique and fun, even upon repeated listens. These breakbeats don’t quite sound like the ones that can be heard on Richard D. James album or Hangable Auto Bulb. My music teacher once told me that music can be simplified to three dimensions: the vertical chords and notes (tone), the horizontal rhythm and progression (time), and what comes out and hits our ears (taste, possibly?). If RDJ pushed his limits in the vertical sense on SAW 2 and I Care Because You Do and horizontally on Richard D. James album, then the breakbeat songs here represents a tangent graph of sound on the Cartesian Plane of Aphex’s repertoire. These synthesizers on the breakbeat tracks sound darkly, seductive, even sexy, and the breakbeats themselves are of great quality save a few here and there. The likes of Cock/Ver 10, Taking Control, Meltphace 6, and Vordhosbn especially are among the best breakbeat tracks he has ever done, and they accomplish more in single songs than most electronic artists get done on entire albums. No walls are destroyed here, but he has certainly developed his signature sound to relative perfection.

But just because Aphex isn’t pushing his own boundaries doesn’t mean he can’t do something new. A lot of where the personality of the album comes in is through short, simple songs characterized by gentle chords. Six short piano interludes punctuate the bulk of the album in equal intervals spread through the two disks. These songs are among some of Aphex’s most simple yet outwardly excellent tracks ever made, and they deserve considerable mention. Strotha Tynhe, Avril 14th, Kesson Daslef, Father, Petiatil Cx Htdui, and Nanou 2 are these songs, and each of them holds a very special, emotional simplicity and fragility. But these are not the only simple ambient songs on the album. The second song on the second disk, Btoum- Roumada, is one of the loveliest most, contemplative, and most gently crafted works in RDJs body of work. Qkthr is also another immediate standout, a minute and a half of what sounds like an accordion being played by a creaking sailboat floating in a dock. Also worth a mention are some other gentle unique pieces Jynweythek, Kladfvgbung Micshk, Hy a Scullyas lyf a Dhagrow, Ruglen Holon, and Beskhu3epnm. They have a unique sound that he has never presented before. Fragile, eastern sounding, and melodic, these are also a series of songs that will be fondly remembered. It is interesting how he works on both ends of the spectrum, crafting harsh jungle music and ambient interludes, and then juxtaposing them next to one another.

That seems to be a large portion of the problem people have with the album. Things are awkwardly placed, but upon further listens, Drukqs opens up both in respect to the songs themselves and their placement. The abrupt change from Jynweythek to Vordhosbn becomes decipherable, and then enjoyable. Drukqs is an album that confuses and confounds before it becomes enjoyable, and it seems like most critics in high places have no patience, or little will to accept something different than they were expecting. Yes, it may recycle some of Aphex’s previous styles, but it creates new ones just as much, making it a double-album that honestly couldn’t have been nailed down to a single disk without deterring the album’s charm. Drukqs is an excellent album worthy of comparison to the other four studio albums under the Aphex Twin surname, and it might even be the best. RDJ doesn’t let up, despite the fact that you have been told he does here.

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Aphex Twin – Come to Daddy

November 20, 2007

Aphex Twin is either one of the most important and talented electronic musicians ever, or a disposable gimmick. His work is either ingenious or obnoxious trash. Whatever Richard D. James is all about, something which no one can seem to figure out anyway, the Come To Daddy EP is distinctly more “Aphex Twin” than any work before it. That is to say, when it is brutal, it is more brutal. When it is mellow, it is more mellow. And when it is fun, it is more fun. This is not to say that the Come To Daddy EP is anywhere close to Aphex Twin’s best or most respectable work. But this work in particular does represent a lot of what Aphex Twin aims for.

The single Come to Daddy is one hell of a number. Although for Aphex Twin fans it may seem tame in comparison to James’ other more hardcore breakbeat work, it is still abrasive and rocking for how underhandedly atmospheric it is. To be sure, if you never liked or found any value in breakbeats in the first place, Come to Daddy is obnoxious and without any real value. But the breakbeats are utilized with a little more recognizable precision and beauty later on. The second track, Flim, is a pretty number with soft yet somehow driving breakbeats played over some of James’ most relaxing and pretty atmospheric tracks ever, later on decorated by humble strings to make for a very memorable final product. Bucephalus Bouncing Ball is often cited as one of Aphex Twin’s best breakbeat tracks. It starts off as a solid beat with a comprihensable direction, and then about halfway through it breaks into two minutes of impressive breakbeat experimentation and probably covers more ground than most other drill ‘n bass artists cover in entire albums. It’s one for fans and fans only, but it ends up being one of the most eclectic and consistantly interesting songs James has ever made, without being completely scary or obnoxious.

Funny Little Man represents it’s title with startling accuracy to say the least, but it isn’t a song you will play back as much as the rest of the EP. In any case, it still feels like it holds the disks uninterruptable personality, save maybe the very end where Richard has perhaps a bit too much fun with lude phrases played through a voicebox. Of the eight tracks that comprise the EP, three of them are alternate mixes of little to no value in comparison to their brethren.

Depending on what your specific taste in Aphex Twin is, and every fan certainly approaches his discography in unique ways with unique preferences, these mixes might be worthy of note, but for sure the albums best moments are it’s original vignettes which comprise the bulk of it. The last of these original pieces on the disk is IZ-US, possibly the most groovy track James has ever made. Simple rhythmic hand claps, snare hits, and cymbal rolls are played over some signature Aphex synthesizers. Considering it’s creator, IZ-US is a relaxing, comforting piece indeed.

Come to Daddy might not be Aphex Twin’s most worthwhile release, but it is easily the best EP. New listeners will most likely find this to be the best introductin to Aphex Twin’s expansive, varied career, and there are treats to be found here for both fans and new listeners alike. However, Aphex Twin’s quality is always scattered, and while there will most likely be something here to satisfy any individual, there are going to be as many songs that are initially worthless to a given person. Aphex Twin is an artist that you need to train yourself to like. This only obscures his agenda and scope of talent even more.

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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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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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Eleven Reviews

April 1, 2007

Alice in Chains – Alice in Chains [Tripod]
Tripod
For their final studio effort, Alice In Chains delivered a full album that they did not accompany with a tour. They did, however, perform on David Letterman, and watching that performance even today will send chills down even casual fan’s backs. Alice In Chains Unplugged may have tied the loose ends up and ended up being the final farewell, but this album is where you see the breakdown happening for Layne Staley. Not that the album is all melancholy or heavy metal. This is actually AiCs most diverse record, and it touches on everything from the most hardcore sludge they have ever produced (no less Sludge Factory, and Grind too) to more positive songs (Heaven Beside You, Shame In You). But you can definitely hear the dissolution of the band in this record, mostly because it bounces around so much. The beautiful classic Heaven Beside You segues into the insane nausea of Head Creeps without any provocation. Most all the songs are good except for a few in the last half that don’t quite cut it as AiC classics, but Heaven Beside You is still one of the bands best and Again is the heaviest thing since Them Bones. The real winner is Over Now. After what appears to be a curl-up-and-die maneuver with the interesting Frogs, there is silence, and then a muffled recorded trumpet resound, after which the confused positive/negative song kicks in and does significant emotional effect on the listener. The biggest problem with this album is the production, which falters very obviously. The idea to continue layering Layne’s vocals was a good idea, but the vocals are treated very poorly here and the sound is simply not heavy enough. Such an emotional record should not have been treated so preciously. A remaster, perhaps? It’s not perfect, but it is a respectable way to throw in the towel and contains some of Alice In Chains’ very best songs.

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin [Box Set]
Tripod
This box set released in 1990 acts as an inflated greatest hits to the music of Led Zeppelin. Each disk both covers a specific time period as well as a musical aesthetic. The first disk is the dirty blues rock that made Led Zep famous, the second disk more folky acoustic stuff (my favorite), the third disk is the longer stuff mostly from the middle career, and the fourth disk is the best of the latter stuff that kind of needs to be included for posterity. Jimmy Paige himself chose the songs so the selection is solid, and every song is great. But the truth stands that this box set was probably unnecessary. There are some rarities rounded up, the bands two famous b-sides Traveling Riverside Blues and the Bob Dylan cover Hey Hey What Can I Do, as well as a brilliant live Jimmy Paige take of White Summer/Black Mountain Side. But beyond that, there isn’t too much incentive for fans. This collection is geared towards the fan who is a little more than casual but less than obsessive, a rare breed for Led Zeppelin. For that reason, people interested in the band could have done better with the two disk greatest hits, and people who want more could have gone with The Complete Studio Recordings box set, which also has the two aforementioned b-sides. The fourth disk may be useful for people who do not want to get too into the bands latter mediocre career, as it gathers the best of those albums pretty effectively. As a collection of songs this is easily an A+ purchase, but as a compilation it is just dumb. One is probably better off just getting The Complete Studio Recordings or starting the long fan trek of buying all the albums. Led Zeppelin was a fantastic band and this is a good portrait, but why stop at this when you could have the whole deal?

Boards of Canada – Music Has The Right to Children
Music Has The Right To Children
Surely Boards of Canada’s finest work, Music Has The Right to Children is at first downright confusing and off-putting but is ultimately a great ambient work. This is an album that has no clear purpose but in that sense reasserts itself within each song, creating everything ranging from small interludes to long beat oriented ambient techno. I remember walking home one day listening to this on my headphones. An Eagle In Your Mind was playing on the way there, the cool constantly changing beats keeping my mind interested and relaxed over the interesting synthesizer. Then the second I unlocked my door and walked into my dark apartment, The Color of the Fire started to play. The song is basically an airy drone underneath a childs voice horribly echoed and warped, complemented by bell-like instruments. I kind of freaked out. I didn’t know what the hell was going on and I felt like the sounds were real enough to be in the actual apartment. That is when the true purpose of this album opened up to me. Music Has The Right to Children is an album of electronic audio toys. Every song on the album has it’s own fun charms. There are some more straightforward pieces, especially the chill Turquoise Hexagon Sun comes to mind, and other times the album is more challenging, like with Sixtyten. Roygbiv is unspeakably fun or the short time it lasts, and Wildlife Analysis is a relaxing ambient opener. The whole album has a recurring mood of comfortable technology, and for that reason the album sticks together very well for how much it bounces around. It may have a few weaker songs, but the strong songs are enough to compensate and make the album a joy to listen to at any time, and a personal favorite as well. Rarely will you find an electronic/ambient album that is both passive and interesting, but Music Has The Right to Children makes the cut and is a completely unique, priceless album.

Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album
Richard D. James Album
The issue everyone seems to have with Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album is mostly due to confusion. Confusion that the record simply does not straighten out. James’ approach on this record is completely skewed, and while this is definitely a product of his usual fun and ultimately effective psyche, listeners will likely be put off by his odd taste. Simply put, this record isn’t sure if it wants to be happy or evil, and the result is a big mess. It’s a fun mess, and an interesting one too, but by no means is this for the casual electronica listener. The ingredients are usually simple ambient melodies that could have worked as songs on their own (or maybe with soft beats) inflated to ludicrous levels of energy by breakneck beats. A surprise lies at every turn of this album, and as a result, the listener is hardly ever spared their temporary sanity. The opening 4 is an Aphex masterwork, a touching gel of strings hammered by the fast beats to make an interesting and contemplative modern piece. But then conversely the next song, Cornish Acid, is fun in a horribly evil way, with practically the same beats overlaying a creepy synthesizer. These decided contradictions are placed by the minute. Sometimes the trick works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Goon Gumpas strangely enough has no beat, and it’s a charming melody, enough to make even the happiest listener suspicious of what tricks might be up Richard’s sleeves. Girl/Boy Song is fairly innocuous even under the asteroid field of a drum machine, and another highlight. Logon Rock Witch is just evil, with a playful organ/jack-in-the-box tune that drifts into a creepy haze. And of course, Milkman is a schizophrenic trick that needs no explanation. This album probably does what it sets out to do with flying colors. I simply don’t always enjoy the goal. The intent is to make good electronic music, and there is a myriad of good tracks here, specifically 4, Fingerbib, and Girl/Boy Song. But the intent is also to confuse with an obnoxious juxtaposition of clashing elements. This can be enjoyable, and there are people who enjoy beats like this, so this is no throwaway. But I probably would have enjoyed the album more had those beats not been there at all. This album is insanity, take it or leave it.

The Cranberries – Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?
Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?
Irish rockers The Cranberries delivered their most acclaimed record as a debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We. There is a certain charm to this kind of music, and no question they presented their style very well for a debut. But there is simply something about this that is lacking. If anything, the wonderful tune Dreams is enough to justify the rest of the album repeating itself. And it does sort of linger on the same melancholy Gaelic themes a lot. When it does it with specific taste and hooks like with I Still Do, it’s alright. But one would think that if the band continued on in the same way they presented Dreams, the album would have been nothing short of phenomenal. But unfortunately, what The Cranberries do the most is not necessarily the most interesting. In any case, some songs here are just priceless, namely Linger and Dreams, but for anyone who wants good Irish rock, a very narrow genre, it definitely wouldn’t be a bad purchase.

The Cure – Standing on a Beach
Standing on a Beach
The Cure are the owners of a frighteningly large body of work and can therefore be a complete hassle to approach. Starting at any individual album can likely result in misconceptions or an unclear picture of what The Cure were really like because at every leg of their long career they have been a bit different. The later compilation Greatest Hits just doesn’t do the job, and there has not yet been a good collection that has covered the bands whole near three decade career. When Standing on a Beach was made, there was never any question whether another collection would have to be made because the band was already making their next album Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, so this was never meant to be a complete picture but it is most likely the best place to start diving into The Cure’s imposing discography. The material here runs from the subdued punk of the bands debut Three Imaginary Boys all the way through the commercial sucess The Head on the Door, and the development is undeniably great and a wonder to listen to. Robert Smith’s voice is honed and the guitars are refined over the years that this spans. All the songs here are great, and it’s a wonder how a band so comtemplative and long winded can make such great pop gems. Accuracy is not any issue because this is a collection of singles, but the band definitely gave their best to the radio and never lost their grace in the process. The Cure are a great band and worthy of exploring, but it is tiring and troublesome to know where to start. This is not a complete picture, but there will most likely never be a completely accurate one, so for casual fans this along with the bands other singles collection Galore will be all one could ever need. And for those who want to dig deeper, this is a good branching point and signpost for where to go next. Either way, Standing on a Beach is a collection of great songs and further proof that The Cure are always fantastic.

Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine
Pretty Hate Machine
At what it does, Nine Inch Nails’ debut Pretty Hate Machine is a killer record. But unfortunately it has some qualities that are hard to get used to or simply not for everyone. This isn’t considered one of the industrial genres best records for no reason. Most all the songs are irresistibly catchy while staying abrasive and heavy. For a first song, Head Like a Hole is still arguably Trent Reznor’s finest concoction of muscular guitars and hypnotic electronica, and the lyrics aren’t bad either. However, one of this albums many flaws are how hit or miss the lyrics are. Half the time, they are spot on and a joy to hear unfurl (lay my hands on Heaven and the sun and the moon and the stars / while the devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car), and at all other times they are cringeworthy at best (how could you turn us into this? / after you just taught me how to kiss…you). Another problem people will have with this album is the very ’80s production values, such as the echoed snares and the stylized synthesizers. But fortunately the core of the record is simply good enough to keep it’s quality apparent even after almost twenty years under it’s belt. Each song is individually crisened with great hook and develops with great guitars and catchy electronic beats and tunes. Not only are all the songs strong, but the record presents itself like a finely cut gem. None of these tunes are as bleak or pained as Reznor’s later songs, but they still have a significant bit of emotion. No question, this is a thematic album based on a relationship that is both painful but also seductively fun, but the lyrics just don’t quite cut it in the end. All the tracks are standout, from the devils hook Kinda I Want To to the sexual pulse of Down In It. The album has great things to share with the right listener, a lot like The Downward Spiral, but it’s problems catch up with it pretty readily. Although it may not be an indesputable masterpiece, it is still a great collection of songs, one of the first truly good industrial records, and a fantastic start to Trent Reznor’s great career.

Cocteau Twins – Garlands
Garlands
Garlands is no question Cocteau Twins most off the wall, odd creation. Being the bands debut one can only expect so much, but either way this is hardly an enjoyable listen. The intension here is clouded. This is kind of a stab at the gothic genre but without as much force as The Cure or similar artists. Garlands is of it’s own world, though. The beats are almost primeval, and the guitar and bass provides a quiet, reserved swirl of out of place sound in the backdrop of Liz Frasers at this point un-honed vocals. To say I don’t understand this record is avoiding the obvious fact that I don’t enjoy listening to it, but the album may well be purposefully strange. Almost every track is an uncomfortable swirl of insanity, and the guitars rarely do anything more than unsettle, and the songs do not conclude very well. One has to wonder, judging from the sharp rise in quality with the proceeding record Head Over Heels, whether this disorder was intended. But the album does have it’s redeeming moments that justify it’s existence. Blind Dumb Deaf is absolutely gorgeous in a sad paranoid way, the title track Garlands is actually kind of interesting, and Wax and Wane is often cited as a Cocteau Twins favorite by hardcore fans who like the bands earlier work. The truth is, this is just setup for the brilliance of Head Over Heels and the spectacular career that follows, but this might actually be your thing if you are looking for early gothic music.

Oceans 11 Soundtrack
Ocean's 11
For a movie that has an otherwise fantastic soundtrack, the CD release is a let down in most all ways. Whoever compiled this clearly did not know what the hell they were doing, that simple. What struck me about Oceans 11 most the first time I saw it was the awesome jazz score, but on here, most of the songs are smashed in value by way of either brevity or inclusion of in-movie dialogue. Tunes like Pickpockets, Ruben’s In, and Stealing The Pinch, and Hookers would be ten times more enjoyable if they weren’t so criminally short, and the dialogue sprinkled throughout is not only unnecessary but also annoying. Some otherwise darling Percy Faith songs are only played as background music to dialogue… So stupid. What saves this for near salvation in the longrun is the fact that the music is fantastic. Boobytrapping, The Projets, Gritty Shaker, $160 Million Chinese Man, and 69 Police are all great songs and long enough for the keeping. Claire de Lune is, as always, a charming classic as well. But the fact of the matter is, the production here is catastrophic. Fans of the movie and it’s music deserve better, and this just doesn’t deliver on the level it should.

Smashing Pumpkins – Rotten Apples: The Smashing Pumpkins Greatest Hits
Rotten Apples
As a sampler to the Smashing Pumpkins discography, Rotten Apples does a fair job, but as a Greatest Hits compilation it fails on a few levels. For one thing, the song selection is rather mixed. To be fair, this is not “Rotten Apples: Best Of Smashing Pumpkins.” Instead, we are treated to what is supposed to be the bands biggest hits on the radio, and in many ways those hits are not presented well enough. Any fan could make the argument that certain songs should have been included, but for a few reasons this compilation just can’t decide whether it wants to be a Greatest Hits or a Best Of, so it falters more in the face of these complaints. The choice of including a shortened version of Drown from the Singles soundtrack is a nice treat though, and two bonus unreleased songs are saved for last as the incentive for fans. These two songs are, no question, fantastic. But attention to the bands whole career is divided between it’s uneven components at the demise of quality of songs. Once again, personal preference is a prevalent complaint. Mayonaise was a much bigger hit than Disarm, and there was no reason whatsoever to include Eye at all. Landslide is truly one of the bands greater gems, but it does not reflect on it’s respective album quite as much as something like Frail And Bedazzled would. If you want a place to start, this might be the best bet you have.

Nirvana – Nirvana Unplugged
Nirvana Unplugged
For as long as I can remember, Nirvana Unplugged has haunted, amazed, and touched me on levels that no other record can. It would be silly for me to pretend that this isn’t my all time favorite record considering how much I come back to it even after long periods of leaving the bands music on the backburner. Every song here is a classic, and each song, be it one of the bands songs or one of the covers, is flexed to it’s otherwise unseen limits, displaying all their glory at completely new revealing angles. Instrumentally, the music is hypnotizing, and I’m yet to figure out why even after all these years, but the perfect rhythm section probably helps and the beautiful guitars are always wonderful. The momentum the album carries is never interrupted, from the Beatles pop of About A Girl through the Meat Puppets set straight down to the Leadbelly cover. Absolutely every moment on this album is as good as can be; there is not one weak song, and even Something In The Way, which I have always considered to be one of Nirvana’s lesser songs from their popular days, is seamlessly transformed into a wonderful gem. Considering Kurt Cobain shot up some heroine right before this show and was nervous out of his mind, the quality of the music is nothing short of miraculous. The band is, in fact, in better playing condition than they have ever been, even if Dave isn’t used to playing so quietly and Kurt is high and emotionally broken. There is clearly an uneasiness here, which makes the listening experience that much more enjoyable. Kurt exaggerates the price of a Leadbelly guitar among other precious nuances shared with the audience in between songs, as if to hide what emotions are really there. Thankfully, this music speaks emotions that words cannot capture and more than makes up for the less than adequate suicide note that Kurt would write in not that many more weeks. This is not only the greatest recording Nirvana ever did, but it is also the unequivocal culmination of their entire career, perfectly tying up any loose ends and leaving me with nothing more to desire from what has always been my favorite band even under deep scrutiny. It is my personal opinion that no record is ever completely perfect, but for all intents and purposes, this is as perfect to me as any album has ever been.