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Since the overprogrammed debacle that was 2001’s Drukqs, there’ve been zero transmissions from Planet Aphex. So when Richard D. James re-emerged at the start of the year with the launch of an extended series of EPs, the resulting response from his still-sizable cult mingled rejoicing, skepticism, and a heap of curiosity. Could techno’s onetime greatest melodist possibly have anything more to give, or was he definitively burned out?
The analog-only concept underpinning Analord seems like a tacit admission that, like so many of his peers, during the late ’90s James had gotten lost in the mire of options offered by state-of-art technology. Riddled with detail and addled by effects, Drukqs‘s delirium tremens of twitchy-glitchy beats and fruitless fruit-loopery suggested it was time for a drastic rethink. In the Dogme-like spirit of Holger Czukay’s maxim “restriction is the mother of invention,” on Analord James stages a strategic retreat to the sort of setup he used at the very start of his career some 15 years ago. He shuns digital signal processing, plug-ins, and “virtual studio technology” programs in favor of analog synths and sequencers, plus house music’s favorite tools, the Roland 909 drum machine and the Roland 303 acid bass generator.
Consistent with the analog concept, these EPs are vinyl-only releases, high-quality pressings from whose deep grooves emanate sounds as thick and glossy as the platters themselves. Vinyl fiends always bang on about “warmth,” but that’s not exactly what you hear on Analord, given that the music is electronic and therefore innately icy. But even before you appraise the tracks as compositions, your ears are struck by the rich presence of the sound. Vinyl fetishism is also a crucial aspect of the EPs’ visual appeal: Transparent sleeves invite your eyes to feast on the inky blackness.
Analord 11 is where the series has paused (for breath, or permanently, it’s not clear), which makes now a good moment to survey the length and breadth of what by any standard constitutes a formidable amount of music (three 74-minute CD-Rs’ worth) to have issued in barely six months. Alongside reverting to the restricted means available to him as a youth, it seems like James has also tried to recover the creative mind-set. Circa ’95, jungle threw the entire “electronic listening music” community off balance, making producers focus their creativity on rhythmic complexity rather than haunting melody (the genre’s true forte). Analord reverses that priority. The beats, while deftly programmed, assume a largely subservient role; mood and melodiousness return to the fore. These tracks invoke a time when the concept of “machine soul” was fresh and inspirational: the era of classic releases by Derrick May, Fingers Inc, LFO, et al., long before chopped-up breakbeats impinged on the “purity” of electronic music.
The crucial question, though, is whether any Analord tracks approach the heights of James’s own classic phase (1991’s “Analogue Bubblebath” to 1995’s “Alberto Balsalm,” approximately). The answer: not quite, but close enough. If the weaker material recalls the output of his early-’90s second-division pseudonyms, the better pieces—the lustrous chitter of “Boxingday” (A3), the cybernetic toad- jabber of “Analoggins” (A6), the writhy glisten of “Backdoor. Netshadow” (A9)—display his unique flair for clustered dissonances, ghostly harmonic wisps, and eerie in-between emotions. (Consumer Guide: Your best buys are 2, 3, 10, and 11). Intriguingly, the pieces that linger in the memory all possess a somber, sorrowful quality: the pensive, frowning chords of “Pissed Up in SE1” (A2), the weepy-eyed melody-foam of “Pwsteal.ldpinch.D” (A8), the dank mazes of glum that take up side two of Analord 11. Instrumentally, the most valued player isn’t the near-omnipresent 303 but whatever reverb unit James uses to drape the sounds in his signature shroud of muzzy melancholy. You start to wonder: Could it be that the Aphex Twin is, like, depressed? Has he been dumped recently (one mournful ditty is titled “Where’s Your Girlfriend?”)? Or is this simply the blues of the innovator who ran out of future, and who’s gone back in the hope of finding a better way forward?