Putting Aphex Twin’s New Album Syro in Context


I’m ostensibly here to talk to you about Aphex Twin’s new album, Syro, but first I need to admit to some Pavlovian conditioning. Over the years I’ve grown unreasonably excitable by the first few bars of “Xtal,” the first track on his debut album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. This has very little to do with the substance of the song, in which a seductive female vocal sample coos out nonsense syllables over twinkles and burbles almost gentle enough to qualify as a lullaby. It’s not even the best track — in particular, the dynamite closer “Actium” recasts and then anodizes the album’s characteristic sleek platinum into something approaching anger, like furious expert oratory delivered on the floor of an intergalactic senate. But “Xtal” has on its side the anticipation implied by the start of a longform treasure. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

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Selected Ambient Works 85-92 may not be the most interesting or the most groundbreaking of the Aphex Twin albums; Richard D. James would start chasing those goals later, albeit sometimes under other monikers. It has already been widely praised as a landmark in electronic music, but it’s actually gorgeous even by global standards that would apply to any medium — watercolor, violin, stained glass. Although beauty is subjective, some of its tentpoles could be construed as rational, even scientific. Romantic attraction maps closely to symmetry of facial features. A song written using mostly dissonant frequencies might be described in many ways, but “beautiful” would not be among them. Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is almost entirely free of heavy dissonance. It’s like listening to an archetype that aspires to the symmetry alone.

But the announcement of this new album was so nerve-racking precisely because not all Aphex Twin material is like that. Following the success of his first album, the accessibility drained quickly from James’s work — within as little as two years. The word “ambient” had originally been a bit of a misnomer, since the debut was actually full of pulsing, beat-driven, drum-heavy loops, but 1994’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II instead lived up to the promise of wishy-washy warbles. We shall not speak of it again here, in part for the sake of clarity.

So not only has James never released another album like Selected Ambient Works 85-92 — worse yet, these days he just doesn’t really release albums at all. It’s been 22 years since that debut, and for more than half that time he has existed only as a beloved ghost. The last thing he released before disappearing was 2001’s Drukqs — twisted, knotty, and in places totally incomprehensible. Frankly, it has proven exhausting to be a fan of a musician who was first brilliant, and then difficult, and finally just totally absent.

In 2010, James slipped in a previously unheard new original track during a DJ set in France, and it was captured with unusually high audio quality by a cell-phone-toting YouTuber. Aphex obsessives flipped out. The song was referred to as “Metz” for the next few years, informally named after the club at which it was played. It was absolutely superb — “dreamy and propulsive in all the right places,” gushed Pitchfork — which was equally rewarding and frustrating. “Metz,” which Syro finally officially titles “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix],” hews closer to Selected Ambient Works than anything else James has released in a very long time. It almost actually wants to be listened to, which is a lot to ask of a man who once hid one of his finest riffs ever under both a pseudonym and the title “.215061” simultaneously. (I’ll continue to refer to it as “Metz” for the sake of clarity, by which I mostly just mean that I don’t want to have to repeatedly type out “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix].”)

There are better songs on Syro, without question — in particular the likewise ridiculously named sort-of title track “syro u473t8+e [141.98],” which sounds like exploding popcorn kernels migrating between melody, bass, and percussion. But now that they’re all finally here, the leak has become canonical, and “Metz” has crystallized into something emotionally emblematic, inspiring the same sort of anticipatory excitement as “Xtal.” This time, however, it’s both the delight in discovering that the album attached to it is excellent, and also surprise that there’s an album there at all.

In both Syro and “Metz,” it’s evident that what has changed most dramatically over the past 13 years is James’s command of density. Across melodies, percussion, and multiple improbably intertwined basslines, there are now more distinct ideas tightly woven together than on any of his previous albums. Everything is a fractal, compositional tidbits nested inside each other, and you can eventually zoom in far enough to completely lose perspective. For lack of a better term, let’s call it orchestration: It’s as though three Aphex Twin albums are playing together in lockstep. If you think of it that way, the 13-year gap starts to seem downright reasonable.

In the decade and a half since the last proper Aphex Twin album, the business end of music fandom has become a race toward instant gratification — your favorite songs in your pocket or strapped to your wrist, every song ever recorded available in the cloud, billions of dollars thrown at tech companies that invent new ways to provide you with more music you don’t actually have time to listen to. In that context, the prolonged absence of a single adored recording felt uncomfortable and alien; even the final version of “Metz” can’t now erase that memory, since it has changed substantially between the drafts. It’s often repeated in academia that the most important instrument on “Kind of Blue” was the silence between the notes. It would be ludicrous, in several ways, to say the same of Syro — only one of them being how crammed with sound it is — but James’s hiatus likewise looms large at the macro level, in that being a fan has become mostly about dealing with his absence. That has finally changed, but the final track on Syro is a spare solo piano ballad punctuated only by birds singing, during which it’s easy to start worrying that he might just up and leave again.

It may ultimately prove unfortunate that Syro is unquestionably a career highlight upon which James could hang another 20-year absence without anyone thinking lesser of him for it. It is a masterpiece of a genre that doesn’t really exist yet, by which I mostly just mean it’s largely unlike anything else I’ve heard in the last 13 or 22 years, and also that I haven’t yet lived with it for long enough to decide whether I actually love it more than Selected Ambient Works. That, too, will take a very long time.