Houston, Texas' Day For Night is an ambitious festival, an attempt to give experimental artists a stage that only more commercial acts are traditionally afforded. Its organizers trust that kids who came out for Kaskade and Travis Scott will open themselves up to the likes of Lightning Bolt and Kamasi Washington; that people will see S U R V I V E as not just "the Stranger Things band"; and that visual art installations can become a centerpiece of a music festival.
By that measure, the eternally confounding Aphex Twin was a perfect headliner for the fest's second year, which went down December 17 and 18 at an old post office building. The UK producer born Richard D. James satisfies both the need for a big name—an exclusive one at that (Saturday's show was his first in the United States in eight years)—and the need to include a real boundary-pusher, a headliner who doesn't make normal headliner fare. Forever straddling the line between the dancefloor and the more experimental forms of underground dance music, he takes the acid house he came up on to headier, more abstract, more beautiful places. His music is as sophisticated as modern classical, but it retains liveliness from the clubs where he cut his teeth. And as last night showed, he's still definitely got teeth.
Part of Richard D. James' genius is that no two Aphex Twin records sound much alike. When Syro—James' first studio album as Aphex Twin after nearly a decade away from the moniker—dropped in 2014, it was neither retro nor progressive. James isn't the type to drop his biggest tracks—say "Windowlicker" or "Come To Daddy"—into his sets, and that's what his fans come to expect from him—to not hear the hits. At Day For Night, his set mirrored how he's approached his recordings, sounding like Aphex without recalling any specific point in his career. Cheetah, his latest release up until the mysterious vinyl record exclusively sold at this show, is relatively straightforward and clubby by his standards, and it seemed likely that his set would follow in that form.
That was sort of true—James clearly knew he had a festival audience ready to dance. But by his nature, he was always going to fuck with us. Right away, he cued up some visuals from a recent teaser video—images of maps (with Houston at the epicenter) being bombed by smiley faces. It reminded me a bit of Vatican Shadow, Dominick Fernow's stark techno project that gets inspiration from shadowy cabals and international conflict. Few other producers or DJs have the guts to bringing war, violence, and chaos into a festival environment's collective escape, but that's exactly what James' combative set did.
James pulled from many different sources to exact his punishment throughout his two-hour set, diving from the bass explosions of Andy Stott's "Posers" to his former cohort μ-Ziq's tricky drum programming on "Brace Yourself Jason" to his own multi-limbed collaborations with Squarepusher, who would play the festival the following night. Reddit sleuths have already ID'd a pretty detailed setlist, though his show wasn't as much about what he played—it was as wide-ranging as you'd expect—but exercising his vast record collection was just another way he could be himself.
Midway through the set, a huge breeze interrupted the unseasonably warm December night and the crowd cheered the loudest they had all night—even given the fact that, you know, James was playing his first US show in nearly a decade. Then, the skies opened up. The rain wasn't heavy, but it was enough to be an inconvenience if you didn't come prepared, and many scrambled to seek shelter inside.
With the forces of nature at his back, James leaned further into the evil-military-genius inclinations that the visuals suggest, using the weather as an occasion to lean into the acidic brainbombs of the material he's recorded under one of his other monikers AFX. He's always been kind of a jokester—he's used his interviews to spread misinformation before "post-truth" ever entered our lexicon—and the gleeful abandon with which he embraced the sudden downpour, made it feel like controlling nature was his latest prank. Seeing James live, the first time for many, was enough, and the weather was a test for the true disciples, and it became as much a part of the festival experience as the music itself.
James is a reclusive figure who loves to plaster his face on his albums (and sometimes, in waveforms), someone who values mystery but not anonymity. To fans of experimental music, James' face, altered to exaggerate his smile, is the equivalent of Deadmau5's giant rodent helmet—comical, over-the-top, a symbol of what you're gonna get. As the rain continued to fall, the visuals changed from military IDM command center to bikini-clad women with their own faces swapped for James' own distorted, grinning visage. He continued the digital manipulation with some site-specific trolling—skewering plenty of Texas's finest politicians like Governor Greg Abbott, former Governor Rick Perry, and Senator Ted Cruz, who appeared with their foreheads and noses crunched. Of course, this being Houston, even hometown legends like Beyoncé weren't immune to having James' face grafted onto their likenesses, though this felt more celebratory than malicious. Noticeably exempt from the digital torture was Houston's famed coterie of rappers. The video for "Windowlicker" may have famously gained recognition as a parody of rap video clichés, but he was not about to disrespect the Screwed Up Click. (An aside: how much of a trip is it that, earlier in the day, Lil Flip and Paul Wall occupied the stage James would turn into a battlezone later on?)
Eventually, the visuals mutated a neverending stream of psychotic smiles, like a torrent of Lost Souls, or the flying skulls from Doom. The last hour, especially the last 30 minutes, felt like an endurance test. If you made it through the rain, wind, and sudden cold, you made it through two hours of techno and acid house as a weapon, you came out triumphant. James gave us a big-tent experience with the intimacy of experimental music, a balance rarely struck. After the clouds finally part, it can feel like we saw some new sides of James over the course of the performance, but he's always been this way, never quite the same each time we see him.
Andy O'Connor is a writer based in Austin, Texas. You can find him on Twitter.