Anytime Aphex Twin releases new music under any of his many monikers, I’m reminded of the tag line for the Beastie Boys’ 2004 album, “To the 5 Boroughs:” “The hiatus is back off, again.” In an even more extreme disappearing act than the one the hip-hop trio would perform in between projects, artist and electronic pioneer Richard D. James always seemed to stop existing altogether, vanishing for years into a Glaswegian cavern, surrounded by devices fabricated or reinvented by himself — only to emerge with something new and big as a proof of life.
Preceded by the slightly more unexpected announcement of a series of European tour dates, James’ latest EP of original material unceremoniously announces after five years that indeed, the hiatus is back off, again. Clocking in at just shy of 15 minutes (including a remix of the lead track), “Blackbox Life Recorder 21f / in a room7 F760” is disappointingly slight — surely he was cranking out enough tunes in his dungeon during the pandemic for a new album? Yet its arrival is a comfort, offering sounds that will ring familiar to longtime fans — and to everyone else serve as an atmospheric Rorschach test, alternately primitive and futuristic, beautiful and menacing, propulsive and ethereal.
The last time James really tweaked the Aphex Twin formula (at its core, already an ongoing tweaking of acid house, drum & bass, proto-dubstep and ambient music) was probably 2015, when he released “Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2,” whose name dispassionately details its juxtaposition of electronic and acoustic instrumentation. (Since the days of “Avril 14” from “Drukqs,” he has basically abandoned proper titles for file names that reference the equipment used to record each track, and the numbered version he settles on a “final.”) These new songs, like those on its 2018 predecessor “Collapse,” feel like an encapsulation — maybe a clearinghouse — of the various styles and subgenres he’s explored since the beginning of his career, which is likely why listeners will either immediately be into them, or not, upon first listen.
To wit: “Blackbox Life Recorder 21f” kicks off with a drum-snare combination that sounds like it came from a 1980s Casio keyboard, nominally more sophisticated than a studio click track, and then James surprises you with a welcoming ambient tone and a cavernous bass drum that makes it sound like a rave that broke out during a spelunking expedition. His capacity for inventive combinations, familiar though they have become to his repertoire, keeps the songs interesting, adding layers of breakbeats and squiggles of melody like he does on the opener that deepen their emotion. By the time he drops the percussion altogether after two and half minutes to spotlight tones that would have felt at home on his Eno-esque 1994 album “Selected Ambient Works Volume II,” James fully commandeers the space between his listener’s ears, creating something that’s not just “cinematic” but meditative.
“zin2 test5” further dances on that razor’s edge between the acid house of his early singles (and later “Analord” series) and the broken trip-hop of 1995’s “…I Care Because You Do,” switching between sinewy breaks and bumping four-four passages. Aside from the track’s brevity, his shifts from one rhythm pattern to the other seem precisely paced to keep the listener engaged, if not comfortable — a ploy to make them want more, or simply react once the groove they’re settling into recedes. But it also seems clear that he’s just trying to keep himself interested; it would appear that the era of the 12-minute droning track is over. And more than staving off boredom, switching things up multiple times over the course of two minutes and thirty seconds makes these tracks, and as a result the whole EP, feel longer.
More complex (or complicated, at least) than his “Classics” material, “in a room7 F760” immediately conjures the melodrama of his 1992 single “Polynomial-C,” starting with a feverish pattern of drums and then adding cowbell and a variety of synthesizer textures. Though he’s clearly faithful to the same equipment (much of which he reportedly designs or builds himself), he uses it like a libertine, creating a symphony of sounds in the span of three or four minutes: in one moment, the shallow metallic sound of ‘80s synths like the Fairlight and Synclavier, in others the disembodied ambience of Eno’s beloved DX7, mashed together over urgent, shuffling percussion.
James’ “Parallax Mix” of “Blackbox Life Recorder 22” takes the original track’s mood in a different direction — more the space of Abigail Mead’s ominous, introspective themes for “Full Metal Jacket” than, say, the dystopian future of Vangelis’ score for “Blade Runner” — making it less danceable, as much as Aphex Twin’s music has truly been in the last two decades. But like the rest of these tracks, their appearance on a dancefloor would be a welcome surprise, even amidst more conventional, crowd-pleasing material, precisely because of their specific manipulation of a mental headspace in concert with the physical one. Because with Aphex Twin, listeners are sort of forced into a state of emotional synesthesia: they hear the music, but are shown (or given) feelings.
That feels rarer than ever in a genre designed for moving, and often fueled by controlled substances. “Blackbox Life Recorder 21f / in a room7 F760” won’t cause a bad trip, but certainly a more complicated one. But for however long Aphex Twin’s hiatus is off, every track released feels like the continuation of a journey that is somehow predictable to those who know the path from before, and also unexpected — so it’s a little scary, but you’re grateful to be on it.
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