Posts Tagged ‘richard david james’

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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.