Album Cover via Aphex Twin/Discogs
Show your love of the game by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon so that we can keep churning out interviews with legendary producers, feature the best emerging rap talent in the game, and gift you the only worthwhile playlists left in this streaming hellscape.
Peter Holslin never saw a drum machine he didn’t like.
It’s totally fine that Richard D. James doesn’t blow my mind anymore. The 1990s and early 2000s saw the electronic producer better known as Aphex Twin breaking new ground as a matter of course. The inventive tonality and precise pacing of early releases like 1993’s Surfing on Sine Waves set the bar painfully high for techno aspirants, while his most monumental works broke new ground for well-established genres (namely ambient music) and set the standards for the novel subgenres of IDM and breakcore. There are entire record labels now devoted to exploring the fertile ground that Aphex and his ilk sowed thirty years ago.
Fans and critics enthusiastically welcomed Aphex Twin’s big comeback in 2014 when Warp released Syro, his first full-length album in 13 years. But since then, the great beatmaking messiah has settled into a mellow, late-career groove, marked by intermittent EP releases and SoundCloud dumps. Although James has long cultivated a mystique of inscrutable genius, much of his recent work strikes a mortal tone. As has often been the case, his track titles look like placeholder file names you’d type without much thought into your preferred DAW when launching a new project. The unassuming acid tracks of 2016’s Cheetah EP, meanwhile, pay tribute to a rare vintage synthesizer that’s best remembered for being really annoying to program.
Yep, nobody’s climbing into a helicopter to interview James anymore; those days of hyperventilating hype are over. The good news is that the tunes of techno-elder James, while not as game-changing, still sound as primo as career-peak James. In fact, I feel a sense of genuine satisfaction when I put on his new EP, Blackbox Life Recorder 21f / In a Room7 F760. This is a short EP, just 15 minutes long. But listening to it is like tucking into a new menu item at a favorite high-end restaurant, or savoring a perfectly-pulled espresso made from single-origin Colombian beans.
There’s an interplay of complexity/calm going on across Blackbox Life Recorder that’s a familiar trope in the Aphex rhythmatic universe. Lead track “Blackbox Life Recorder 21f” drifts on a bed of warm pads that feel as finely crafted as a 1,000-thread goose down pillow; against that come dry, snippy snare accents and escalating drum ’n’ bass breaks. Despite the beat, the track feels more ambient in nature, with infinite intricacies and layers coming together into a melancholic whole. Aphex takes much more subtle of an approach on “Blackbox Life Recorder 21f” than he did on 2018’s Collapse EP, leading to one of the most beautiful tracks he’s put out in years.
“Zin2 Test5” carries a slight whiff of acid-house thanks to a big, goofy bass-line that gently modulates through the two-and-a-half minute runtime. But for the most part James continues to produce in his own programming language, harnessing airy synth washes and sharply-honed drum sounds from gear and samples of unknown provenance. “In a Room7 F760” is by far the funnest track on the EP, with flammed-out snares and runaway cowbell segueing into a dreamy soundscape. He dishes out an absurdly rad drum fill at one point in the back half, with electronic toms sputtering and ricocheting like a supercharged reenactment of “In the Air Tonight.”
Across the EP, Aphex Twin tempers his mischievous side with an overall warmth and quietude. Even when he’s at his weirdest—for example, by conjuring the low-pitched synths on “Blackbox Life Recorder 22 [Parallax Mix],” which moan like a sad genie trapped in a broken iPhone—he does so with the steady hand of a seasoned master. Every brisk snare accent, whispering melody, and squiggly switch-up has purpose, making it a joy to listen to him work.