Ghost in the Machine

Aphex Twin, the Mozart (or Beethoven) of electronic music, re-emerges. Maybe.

In early May, an unknown artist calling himself Brian Tregaskin launched a MySpace page featuring some extremely accomplished acid techno, outtakes from a pair of imminent releases on the British "brain-dance" label Rephlex Records. Other MySpace pages quickly went up—one each for Brian Trageskin, Brian Trageksin, Karen Tregaskin, and "The Tuss," the name under which he (or she, or they) would be releasing music. First came a three-track EP, Confederation Trough, which was pretty good, but more exciting for what it seemed to promise. Opener "Fredugolon 6" is a quickly evolving acid bricolage, abandoning the opening theme—a squelchy, bouncing bass line—almost as soon as it's established, allowing new motifs to emerge and then fade out as well. It's a fascinating piece of music, and if Trough as a whole didn't quite gel, it wasn't for want of good ideas.

That a rookie could so gracefully avoid the many clichés that afflict dance music—particularly such a proscribed, anachronistic sub-genre as analog-based acid techno—was pretty exciting. But the fine print on the EP and the subsequent full-length, Rushup Edge, introduced a puzzler: The Tregaskins had somehow landed a publishing deal with the prestigious U.K. house Chrysalis, an achievement that usually figures in an artist's career more as a coronation than as a rite of passage. Geeks around the world scratched their heads, formed opinions, blogged, and Googled for leaked versions of Rushup Edge.

Soon enough, it appeared online and in stores, immediately striking listeners as the work of a master—assured, dense, expansive, and dazzling. And while it resembles acid techno in its palette of tones, the structure of its six tracks and the amount of detail in the arrangements are sui generis. The backbone of the six-minute opener "Synthacon 9" is about as simple a bass line as can be written—three notes up, three notes down, the same sequence De La Soul used in "Ghetto Thang." But over that basic figure, the Tuss elaborates so many harmonic and rhythmic surprises, and layers them so adroitly, that you don't even notice that the last third of the song is denouement.

The developments on "Last Rushup 10" are at once more abrupt and more logical than those on Trough—there's not a moment of unnecessary space, but neither does it feel overcooked. The album's urgent centerpiece, "Rushup I Bank 12," starts with an intriguing call-and-response—the call a modal, angular line that brings to mind a futuristic koto, the response an essentially amelodic burst of changing synth textures—that is then taken over by piano, before the rest of the track unspools as a breakbeat-driven dance tune. "Death Fuck," which follows, is (unsurprisingly) a bit more aggressive, an old-fashioned IDM face-melt interrupted by a church-bell-evoking piano. The record closes with "Goodbye Rute," stately, melancholy, and an apt album ender.

So who really made this? Brian? Karen? Brian and Karen? No one who pays attention to such things believes the Tregaskins are real—or, to be precise, that they are who they say they are. In fact, Brian is almost certainly the very person he has vehemently claimed not to be: deified electronic pioneer Richard D. James, a/k/a Aphex Twin, who just happens to be co-proprietor of the ultra-cool Rephlex. There's a ton of super-geeky circumstantial evidence to support the conclusion that the Tuss is yet another alias for RDJ, who's also gone by AFX, Caustic Window, Q-Chastic, Polygon Window, Gak, and many other noms de synthétiseurs. I'll spare you most of it. But Aphex Twin is an artist whom it is impossible to be influenced by without sounding simply derivative of, and the Tuss is not a mere mimic: Rushup Edge doesn't approximate music from Aphex Twin's past, but anticipates its future.

Richard D. James is a genius. I don't use that word unseriously: He towers over his contemporaries like no artist has since the Beatles. After his 1993 debut, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, defined "ambient" (the first of several genres James was to invent), a critic anointed him "The Mozart of Techno." But the handful of magisterial records that followed SAW made this pronouncement seem, if anything, to be an understatement. For one thing, his mischievous instinct for finding the links between apparent chaos and beauty had more in common with the imperious mastery of, say, Beethoven. And for another, James was really more like Jesus Christ—a redeemer of the lowly, because, really, is there any form of music lower than house?

In the mid '90s, James produced a string of ground-breaking works at a pace that's almost unbelievable 10 years later. 1995's ...I Care Because You Do killed off trip-hop, or at least exhausted it; the Hangable Auto Bulb EPs and Richard D. James Album did the same for jungle/drum-and-bass. The "Come to Daddy" single—along with its eponymous full-length—was a genuinely frightening rebuke to the faux-horror shtick of Prodigy, who'd had a crossover hit with "Firestarter"; all the while, he was also releasing various installments in his Analogue Bubblebath series.

Then, in 1999, he dropped the Windowlicker EP, Aphex Twin's commercial apotheosis, the title track a brilliant, demented, pornographic single accompanied by Chris Cunningham's equally brilliant long-form video—a transgender "Thriller" that might be the best music video ever made. The premise: Two guys drive around Venice Beach trying to get laid, but all the ladies in the video—big-breasted, bikini-clad vixens who fondle each other and cavort in the back of a limo have the grinning, bearded face of Richard D. James. It's pretty upsetting the first 20 times you watch it.

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