Back in the mid-1990s, when record stores weren’t completely miserable places to spend one’s time, I saw the face of Aphex Twin. An enigma with sunken eyes and a too-white smile, he leered at me from a poster promoting 1996’s Richard D. James Album, his third album for Sire under his most famous moniker. Seeing this nightmare version of the man behind the music felt both personal and yet distant, especially given the institutional facelessness of techno promoted by shadowy production cabals like Detroit's Underground Resistance. With just one peculiar photo, James had set a trap that so many would fall into, turning them into devoted, obsessive fans in the process. It's now been 13 years since an album release under the name Aphex Twin, during which time that obsession has been magnified by curiosity, diminished by time, and once again magnified by anticipation as details have slowly emerged about a new Aphex Twin album called Syro. Last week, when through some stroke of luck, I’d secured a spot in the competitive lottery to be one of the first people in the world to hear the record, some of the same exhilaration from almost two decades ago returned.
By the time I saw the Richard D. James Album poster, I already had some familiarity with James’s work, thanks to industrial music imprint Wax Trax! Records’ licensing relationship with the UK-based Warp. As a teen prone to wearing KMFDM t-shirts and sneaking into goth clubs underage, I’d learned to blindly trust certain record labels, regularly spending my minimum wages on the sounds of perturbed Europeans. Showcasing the works of forward-thinking producers like Autechre, Richie Hawtin, and Speedy J, among others, Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series of compilations and albums introduced the masses to the concept of “intelligent dance music” (IDM), a catch-all term used to describe all that didn’t comfortably fit into more conventional electronic genre categories. James’s contributions to the short-lived but influential intercontinental release program largely came under the name Polygon Window and were best captured on 1993’s Surfing On Sine Waves. The album’s single “Quoth” remains the perfect fusion of techno and industrial, melding four-to-the-floor warehouse rhythms with grating factory loops.
Not long thereafter, I was off to college. Enabled by the installation of ethernet across campus housing, Napster brought Aphex Twin's albums and vinyl obscurities into my cramped dorm room. Here I discovered—through mislabeled and poorly-ripped MP3s—James’s pseudonyms like Caustic Window, GAK, and Power-Pill. While some of these projects were more playful than overtly thoughtful, they showcased his broad palette of electronic styles both in touch with and distinct from then-contemporary rave music. As Aphex Twin, he smashed all of those elements against one another, regularly maintaining a sense of humor or a sense of wonderment. His discography offered something for every mood, including a few you didn’t know existed. He was an easy guy to obsess over.
Online message boards and newsgroups encouraged such behavior, and allowed a certain cult following to grow around him. There, we debated his unsubstantiated aliases and scanned the output of his Rephlex imprint for clues. Rumors that he drove a tank and of other eccentricities spread and were accepted as fact. We giggled over revelations that a playful trickster had embedded a digital self-portrait, viewable only via spectrogram, into one of his tracks. People even tried to learn Cornish, a recognized minority language in the Southwest UK that James often used in his song titles. Aphex Twin was the closest thing we had to Ken Kesey, a Merry Prankster for our jilted generation.
Still, the thrill of attempting to unraveling mysteries behind aliases like Bradley Strider turned to exhaustion and even boredom. Did it matter that Warp artist Chris Clark wasn’t another secret Aphex project? Does it matter now that The Tuss ultimately was? My visits to the We Are The Music Makers forum, an enduring hub for AFX obsessives, and other like-minded forums grew less and less frequent as my interest in participating in these discussions waned. By the time Rephlex released Chosen Lords, a 2006 CD compiling selections from his vinyl-only Analord series, I’d more or less stopped caring about Aphex Twin.
Eight years later, I found myself third in line outside Williamsburg nightclub Verboten in the late summer afternoon drizzle, awaiting my chance to hear Syro. Mere weeks before, his comeback was heralded in typically peculiar fashion, namely in the form of a blimp branded with his logo circling mysteriously over London. Whimsical and a tad quaint, it announced his return better than any press release ever could. Since then, graffiti logos, a link to the deep web, and, finally, an actual track release on YouTube, had continued to build the general hype around the release. Listening parties were announced in eight different cities in North America and Europe, accessible only to people who won a ticket.
The man directly behind me, his stylish mutton chops flecked with stray white hairs, had traveled all the way from Florida to attend after winning a place in two different cities one day apart. He laughed off the cost of the plane tickets, opting not to worry about them until the credit card bill arrived. The venue’s staff checked our names against the guest list and administered wristbands accordingly. Minutes before opening the doors, a representative of Verboten warned that any cell phone usage would be grounds for removal, as per Warp’s instructions. I’d left mine at home.
Once we were herded inside Verboten, it became clear just how poorly Aphex Twin fanboys have aged. Most of the 100 attendees looked like a parody of the popular conception of internet forum users, grown up. Slightly graying and paunchy, they stood around, mostly talking to no one. Looking for an optimal listening spot, each was living out the real world equivalent of an Internet comment section first!! Some made nerdy small talk, but most stood quietly in spite of our obvious commonality, as if we’d forgotten how to communicate. A fortysomething in a Aphex Twin shirt commented to two strangers “I wanna get some swag” although none appeared. We gave the stage a wide berth, as if we were afraid to get too close and somehow miss out—especially amusing behavior given that Verboten is about as intimate as single room dance clubs get.
The setting itself was austere, with Verboten’s unflattering house lights left on. The smell of damp wood hit the nose. Above, a disco ball swayed precariously. A smoke machine belched by mistake. Security guards in black button downs and red ties yawned. A green-tinged Aphex Twin logo projected on the far wall made for the only indication of why we were all there. The staff flagrantly flaunted their cell phones, including the guy who bellowed at us outside in line not to use our own. Everyone stood or sat around like idle Sims, as if limbs were useless without digital distractions. At least there was a bar.
After 45 minutes of murmuring and inactivity, the lights went down and Syro opener “minipops 67 (source field mix)” began to play. Over the course of an hour, James reached back into the past, though not necessarily his own. Syro barely resembles the abstractions of …I Care Because You Do so much as what was once housed under the category of rave. Acid, electro, jungle, and techno serve as touchpoints for nearly every track. The spectre of drill n’ bass creaks back on “CIRCLONT14 (shrymoming mix)” and “PAPAT4 (pineal mix),” while less frenetic breakbeats carry “4 bit 9d api+e+6.” At least two of the tracks were identified by forum fiends as having previously featured in his DJ sets in Manchester and Metz, respectively. DJ/producer Christina Empress, who was in attendance, trainspotted a sample from DJ Hype’s 1994 “Roll The Beats” record on “s950tx16wasr10 (earth portal mix).” Though largely devoid of movement, the audience clapped and whooped after each song, gratified by what they were hearing.
Previously, Aphex Twin made music that was supposed to sound like the future, meant to sound like now as envisioned back in 1996. Syro, in effect, continues his work in a way that, nearly two decades later, irreverently disregards that we’ve already arrived. Our present day is somehow unsatisfactory to his time traveling mind, and so James has conveniently opted out, breaking the fourth wall and the laws of physics in the process. Unwilling to be defined by our perceptions, he's broadcasting from an alternative universe where rave music never evolved into what we now call EDM, vexing and titillating his fans in different ways that reminds why we fell in with him in the first place. Our exasperation and bewilderment won’t change the outcome. Aphex Twin never followed the rules, and he’s got little incentive to start now.
Gary Suarez is the internet's greatest fanboy. He's Gary, and he's on Twitter - @noyokono