Richard D. James electrified the Internet music journalism industry late in August 2014 with an eccentric hybrid on-and-offline advertising campaign announcing his first album in thirteen years. A lime green blimp hovered over London, floating the Aphex Twin logo and a foreboding “2014” over the English skyline. The signature emblem appeared in various locations around New York City as well. Around the same time, James tweeted out the link to a mysterious website hosted on the Tor network. Though less interactive than Death Grips‘ 2012 cryptographic scavenger hunt in preparation for No Love Deep Web, the webpage has been the source of attention and interest for Internet-connected listeners. The page shows the cover art of SYRO along with a predictably cryptic track-list. Originally it also contained a budget for the endeavor and an unsettling, mangled portrait of James, but now it lists where to buy the record and eerie information about the visitor’s machine. While this all may be overkill for an album release, the return of Aphex Twin is worthy of this sort of excess.
In short, James could be considered the greatest musician that experimental dance music has known. His work has gone on to influence hundreds of producers around the world, many of which–like Autechre, Clark, and Kid606–are nothing short of legends themselves. The Cornwall native began DJing in the mid-80s and released his first material in 1991. His music since then has shifted from acid to ambient, to almost silent techno to mashed-up modern classical and the insanity of “Logan Rock Witch” off of Richard D. James which features a didgeridoo, a slide whistle, and a church organ. Needless to say, James likes to keep his listeners guessing. A lifetime of tinkering with electronics has given him the ability to continue to surprise and innovate. A more in-depth biography on the mastermind behind Aphex Twin can be found on AllMusic.
In terms of musical style, James mixes old and new, dark and mellow, intense and ambient. Early albums had more of a rhythmic sequencing, roots deep in the acid house tradition. Yet even then, his works had an undeniably unique atmosphere. Selected Ambient Works 85-92 looks far into the future of dance music with alien patterns that work themselves out of the fold. With each new release, his sound gets more definitely constructed. Caustic Window (1994) shows a funky influx of layers. Classical instruments float around in the background and then harsh, acidic synths entangle themselves in brutally raw electronic beats. Arguably his most popular releases, Richard D. James and Drukqs (1996 and 2001 respectively), have a tactile aspect. Breakbeats contrast with strings and analog samples feed into the drums on Richard D. James. The thirty-track masterpiece that is Drukqs sees nostalgic acid tracks cut between pieces that can only be described as the love-children of Lovecraft and Hauschka. In tracks like “Prep Gwarlek 3b,” a lanky beast made of wood and iron swings its limbs around the studio, striking a piano and any other object in its way. From all of James’ releases, Drukqs stands out as the most unique since the most memorable tracks include little or no electronics. Thus it remains mostly an outlier.
In contrast, SYRO is an album which reaches right back to the electronic roots of the project. Indeed the record contains material that actually originates from the early 2000s (see “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]”). At its core, SYRO contains that same germ which has grown within each previous release: intricate strokes of bleeps and bloops blended with noises so bizarre they could be patentable. That rogue revenant that struck notes in “Prep Gwarlek 3b” returns as a dance-crazed, cybernetic percussion machine. The first track released from the album was “minipops 67 [120.2],” a scratch-beat collage of digitized voices, synth taps, and ethereal, echoing piano notes. The droning hum of the voices in this track sticks with the listener. Much of the rest of the record is on par with minipops. Funky chords and 90s-style acid find a 2014 home in these grooves. Noises that seemed extinct–ghosts from the halls of English raves–come back to haunt in aggressive ways. Housed in this record are complex constructions of maniacal machines layered upon one another until there are too many noises to decipher each without an expensive surround-sound system. A couple of notable exceptions to this explosive motif are “180db_ ,” which includes an ear-catching dissonant synth-lick and a relatively simple drum beat, and “aisatsana ,” a calm piano/bird-song piece which serves as a retreat from the onslaught of electronics that comprise the rest of SYRO. After a couple of listens through, I must say that my favorite track is “PAPAT4 (pineal mix) .” This track stands out for its slow pacing and laid-back, reverberating lead. The overall sunny demeanor of the piece is broken up by haunting background harmonies, strangled, digital vocals, and interludes of unmistakably Aphex-Twin-breaks. While not representative of the album of a whole, it certainly shows a blending of styles that lead into the creation of this decade’s first contribution by Richard James.
SYRO is beautiful. I feel it is something all fans of experimental dance should own and take time to explore. It’s a multifaceted album with intricacies which those familiar with anything produced by this Cornish phonomancer have come to admire. Despite this, I feel there were much stronger showings this year from other artists. Releases from Objekt, SHXCXCHCXSH, Jock Club, Roman Flugel, and Rainer Veil have each featured notable techno advancements. Nothing on SYRO stuck out to me like Leon Vynehall‘s “It’s Just (House of Dupree)” or Quirke‘s “Break a Mirrored Leg”. SYRO has gained the attention it has from the logo that’s on the record. Perhaps it’s not fair to say that listeners should expect more from an artist merely because of that artist’s mythical status. It’s certainly not harmful to the world that so much breakthrough techno was released this year, but I feel that if the goal of SYRO was to give Richard James a messianic re-entry to the experimental dance scene, it fell short.
While I see SYRO as a bit of a disappointment following the hype that was stirred, it remains a solid, memorable release. I don’t want to see the Aphex Twin project disappear again. Bedrooms and raves everywhere need their glitchy, masterful producer-king. Moving forward, I can’t imagine SYRO as a “final album.” It would be preposterous to arise only to disappear again. I remain hopeful that another work of Aphex Twin’s is still yet to arrive. In the end, it doesn’t matter how well SYRO stacks up to other releases this year or other albums in James’ discography. The experimental techno community has been set on end. Aphex Twin has taken a shaky step from the glitchy-gilt display case of dance music history and entered a new decade of music production.
Perhaps in retrospect, it should go as a lesson to hype-generators everywhere. If you’re going to fly a blimp over London seventy-four years after the blitz, you’d better make sure you have a release that warrants the defense.
01) minipops 67 [120.2]
02) XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]
03) produk 29 
04) 4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26]
05) 180db_ 
06) CIRCLONT6A [141.98][syrobonkus mix]
07) fz pseudotimestretch+e+3 [138.85]
08) CIRCLONT14 [152.97][shrymoming mix]
09) syro u473t8+e [141.98][piezoluminescence mix]
10) PAPAT4 [pineal mix]
11) s950tx16wasr10 [163.97][earth portal mix]
12) aisatsana