Ghost in the Machine


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.

Unfortunately, James was overdue for a crucifixion, which he received upon the release of the 2001 double-album drukqs. There were some favorable notices, but most critics—perhaps bored of being in the Aphex Twin pom-pom squad—confessed to finding the album “routine,” “conventional,” “a sad surprise,” “rather tired,” and “barely half-baked.” Such harshness is hard to justify six years later. The record’s composition was certainly unusual—alongside drill-and-bass numbers full of bludgeoning polyrhythms and lush chords were tinkling ditties for solo piano—but it shouldn’t have been unexpected. The Windowlicker EP was in some ways a drukqs prototype, in that both featured compositions for solo piano and explored competing sides of James’s musical personality: the tuneful and seductive versus the cold and computerized. And it’s not as though James stopped breaking new ground on drukqs, as some argued. But he did seem to have come up against a wall: namely, the feebleness of the human brain.

Since switching from analog synthesizers to computers as his primary compositional tool after …I Care Because You Do, James’s arrangements had become so detailed that they were impossible for a listener to process in real time. His primary mode had become continual bedazzlement by way of sensory overload, and the majority of drukqs, in all its excellence, was post-human. Too much was going on, and there was little repetition, only constant change. And by the time the album came out in the fall of 2001, the looming global disaster of the Y2K bug had long since proven to be a dud, so the sounds of a computer freaking out were perhaps no longer apposite.

So for whatever reasons, backlash- related or not, after nearly a decade of con- tinual invention and reinvention, James stopped releasing music. He “retired.” But in the past two years, he’s been inching his way out of hiding.

Did I say “inching”? Well, he released three and a half hours of music over 11 12-inch records (dubbed the Analord series) in 2005, which for anyone else would have constituted a roaring comeback. But he conducted no interviews and engaged in no promotion of this new material. He’d always been suspicious of the media, manipulating his literal image in videos and on album covers, as well as his public image via gonzo interviews. But he’d never gone completely radio-silent after a release. By 2005, it would seem, his disgust for the recording and critical industries had solidified, complete and impenetrable.

The Analord series, released under his AFX moniker (except for no. 10, credited for subtle reasons to Aphex Twin), marked a return to relative simplicity after the baroque drukqs. It was composed and recorded entirely on analog equipment, without computers. There were no hyperactive jump cuts, so the songs were, on the whole, more inviting: temperamental, obsolescent machines humming, singing and bleating straight house bangers, sad-robot love songs, future/past disco, and alternate-reality rave fantasies. The series was culled for 2006’s one-disc Chosen Lords, one of last year’s best records. Critics who heard it seemed to like it well enough, but the musical climate had changed since the late ’90s, and without James making with the weird quotes and subversive videos, the entire project sank from view without too many people taking notice.

Rushup Edge is a consolidation of the maximal, computer-driven music of turn-of-the-century Aphex Twin and the warm, danceable vibes of Analord. James’s fingerprints are all over it. It’s a fantastic effort, more digressive than the Analord series and less fractured than the frenzy of drukqs. And you can ignore all the MySpace identity spoofing, because there’s no way Rushup could’ve been done by anyone other than the man himself.

Yet it’s tempting to entertain the idea that an unknown artist could embody another’s genius so convincingly, inferring with such detail the direction he very well may have chosen to go. Because anticipating the work of a genius perfectly is the same thing as being a genius, and if some kid named Brian Tregaskin can fake his way there, then so can any of us.

Except, of course, we can’t either.