Since bursting onto the electronica scene more than 20 years ago, producer Richard D. James has built arguably the most diverse catalog of any electronic artist, with work in genres including ambient, jungle, industrial, acid house and drone. His latest album, “Syro,” was released on September 19. It pulls from all these styles creatively for a well-crafted and fundamentally satisfying album, if not the sort of bombshell release that his fans have come to expect.
James has released music by over a dozen pseudonyms, reinforcing his iconoclastic and eccentric persona within the music world. However, his most celebrated album was released under ‘Aphex Twin,’ a moniker with no studio releases since his 2001 album “Drukqs.” He has a tendency to mythologize himself, using his own face as a prominent element of many of his album covers and cultivating a mystique surrounding his personal life and work.
James’ label has used guerilla marketing tactics to promote the album, including flying a blimp over London and creating elaborate chalk paintings of his artist logo. Considering the long wait and unconventional promotion, it’s no surprise that the release of “Syro” has garnered so much attention, even from mainstream outlets such as NPR and The New York Times that have overlooked James’ work in the past.
James’ work generally falls into two categories. His early work in particular consists of spare, open-ended ambient compositions; this is the style on display in his celebrated “Selected Ambient Works” albums. His work since the second half of the 1990s has been in a more aggressive style characterized by breakbeats and dense percussion.
“Syro” combines all of these styles with excellent results. The excesses of some of James’ albums have been trimmed down and the result is an overall more cohesive work that incorporates extreme diversity of style without anything seeming out of place.
Similar to previous releases, the track titles in “Syro” are unpronounceable combinations of nonsense words and random numbers. While it’s amusing to see reviewers highlighting the musical differences between “fz pseudotimestretch+e+3 [138.85]” and “syro u473t8+e [141.98][piezoluminescence mix],” Aphex’s message is clear: focus on the work as a whole, not its parts.
That said, specific tracks deserve to be highlighted. “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]” is 10 minutes long and moves effortlessly from a dark ambient style to a more aggressive techno finish. “180db_” contains more danceable beats than the rest of the album, while retaining its off-kilter rhythms and slightly unsettling atmosphere. The album’s strongest cut is arguably “s950tx16wasr10 [163.97][earth portal mix];” it constructs a sonic landscape from vocal samples, drum machine and spare electronic percussion and synthesizer.
Aphex Twin has developed a reputation for innovating a new style with every album. In that respect “Syro” is lacking, since it synthesizes and consolidates past sounds rather than boldly venturing where none have gone before. However, it skillfully consolidates his previous styles with a mature sound that had been lacking from many earlier efforts; considering the media attention “Syro” has received, it is sure to gain James many new admirers.
After years of semi-retirement from the music world, “Syro” shows that Richard D. James is back in a big way. His fans, mainstream electronica and the public at large would do well to take notice.