Peter Holslin means to brag and he means to boast
I used to be skeptical of electronic music. I didn’t know much about it, but what I’d heard seemed pretentious and cheesy. Then I listened to Richard D. James, and I realized that I was being an idiot. Operating under a variety of aliases—Polygon Window, AFX, The Dice Man, Power-Pill, Bradley Strider, but most notably Aphex Twin—James has gained a reputation over the past 20 years for making remarkable music out of hardware and software he’s often modified himself. Indeed, the extensive “Equipment” section on Aphex Twin’s Wikipedia page is enough to give a gear-head a hard on. Beneath Aphex’s computerized exterior, though, there has always been a tender beating heart.
James is putting out a new album, SYRO, via Warp Records on Sept. 19. His most recent full-length—the challenging double-disc Drukqs—came out in 2001. That’s about a million subgenres ago in electronic-music years, but today it’s still remarkably resonant. This was the record that first disabused me of my trivial rockist prejudices, but it means more than that. In the post-9/11 era it’s a quintessential cyberpunk statement, wrangling with the complicated physiology of a digitally connected world.
Drukqs stands in stark contrast to some of Aphex Twin’s earlier achievements. Zigzagging through 30 tracks of spastic drill ’n’ bass, ominous ambient vignettes, and calming piano études in the style of John Cage and Erik Satie, it serves as a stranger and more chaotic foil to Aphex’s vast Selected Ambient Works Volume II from 1994. Some critics hated Drukqs when it first came out, but I love its epic scope and mischievous spirit. And though some of those nutty track titles only make sense to a careful observer (“Vordhosbn” might look like gibberish but it actually means “Sailboat” in the ancient language of Cornish), highlights like “Omgyjya-Switch 7”—with its cracking whips and inhuman cries—offer pure catharsis.
The title Drukqs is usually translated to mean “drug use,” and the track “Cock/Ver 10” sure does hit me like a dose of Ritalin—the trademark synth hook calms my nerves even as I get barraged with hyperkinetic kicks and snares. However, the gripping “Mt. Saint Michel mix+Saint Michaels Mount” feels less like chemical aid than electro-shock therapy. Riding on seizure-inducing squelch bass, it soon gives way to angelic synth harmonies, and then finally enters into a phase of quiet, unfamiliar calm. When a female singer lets out a breathy murmur, it feels as though my neurons have finally been rewired to accept Aphex’s cyborg state of mind.
Aphex is a prodigious beatmaker, and much has been made of his gift for melody. But on Drukqs, it’s the harmonics that really bring out his emotional side. This occurred to me when I listened to “Meltphace 6”—not the original version on the album, which is wonderful, but the live arrangement performed by New York new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound for their 2005 Aphex Twin tribute album, Acoustica. Though they don’t have the same rhythmic punch, their display of mellow woodwinds, squawking horns and violent flute blows brings out the piece’s eerie tension. Add in some lurching bass, and the performance resembles a score Danny Elfman might’ve put together while tripping on Substance D.
Indeed, when you take Drukqs out of its electronic context, you really hear how fundamentally musical these tracks are. I didn’t hyperventilate over his recently-unearthed 1994 Caustic Window LP, which sounds rather quaint compared to the boldest material from labels like Hyperdub and Brainfeeder. But the inventively meditative Drukqs cut “Btoum-Roumada”—melodious, wandering bells chiming with reverb—will still warm the heart on a winter’s morn.
Drukqs came out on Warp Records just a month after the Sept. 11th attacks. I stumbled across it in the mid-’00s when I was in college, and maybe I was so attracted to it because I knew, on a subliminal level, that it reflected a world undergoing major tectonic shifts. It’s almost disturbing how prescient the album proved to be. These days, I can’t think of a better soundtrack to my own global engagement—multiple electronic devices, multiple social media accounts, multiple tabs open, bad posture, chronic tension headaches and hours spent indoors—than Aphex’s scatterbrained beats and mournful synths.
Whether writing, researching or just screwing around, I spend a lot of time on the net. Thanks to my cheap Ikea desk chair, this has become a daily struggle. Every time I sit in it, I have to contort my body in order to fit the chair’s rigid specifications (though it should be the other way around, right??). Invariably I kick it over then post up on my bed, which puts me in an even less ergonomically sound position. By the end of the day, my temples are pounding and I can barely rotate my neck. But I still boot up my laptop the next morning, starting the process all over again.
I’m going to get a new chair soon, but this situation still makes me wonder: Who’s in charge here, the computer or me? I used to have doubts about electronic music, but now a huge chunk of my life is electronic. If I’m not careful, I might just end up like the little boy in “Gwarek2,” the most frightening track on Drukqs. In its first minute you can hear his voice, whimpering, screaming in agony, as he gets yanked into a vortex of digital manipulation. Soon, he’s vanished completely.
Still, I can’t deny the sweetness technology brings. The most heartening track on Drukqs is “Lornaderek,” a 31-second clip in which James’ parents—Lorna and Derek—sing him “Happy Birthday” over voicemail. “Happy birthday my little son. My little 28-year-old son. Well, you were born by now because you were born about five o’clock in the morning. You have a lovely day. I hope your card came,” Lorna says. I don’t get many birthday messages or cards anymore. That’s fine, because when I turned 28 this year, my Facebook wall filled up with more birthday wishes than a boy could ask for. At this point, I wouldn’t expect it any other way.