Pardon me for sounding like an old man, but sometimes I long for the good old days.
Do you remember the good old days? By “good old days” I mean, of course, the days when Richard D. James was the hot new thing that the cool kids listened to, the thinking man’s alternative to the electronica (hack, cough) revolution, creator and purveyor of noises that no one had heard before and no one of so-called sound mind could possibly have created. Those were the days of I Care Because You Do, arguably the album that made James the face (in more ways than one) of Warp Records. This was also the time when James could release “Ventolin”, the single most obnoxious thing he’s ever recorded, as a single, and release obscure little vinyl records with limited runs under alternate names, and his audience would assume that he was doing it in the name of things like “creative freedom” and “artistic expression”. Of course, it would take most of us years to realize that, for the most part, he was just fucking with all of us.
The two Hangable Auto Bulb EPs were released by James under the AFX name, and limited to 3,000 copies for the first and 2,500 for the second. What makes them truly notable, however, is the way they seem to be one of the few spots where James is experimenting with a new sound that he would later adopt as Aphex Twin. Now, a full 10 years after the two EPs were first released, the masses (or, at least, the fans who weren’t willing to pay exorbitant prices on eBay) finally get a taste of the sounds that would one day turn into the genesis of the Richard D. James album, thanks to the reissued CD version of Hangable Auto Bulb.
Of course, even amidst the experimentation, James’s idea of humor is still rather prevalent over the course of the Hangable Auto Bulb tracks. “Children Talking” is built around a sample of a child saying “mashed potatoes”, countered by an older voice (James himself, perhaps?) asking “mashed potatoes? Why do you hate mashed potatoes?” “Hangable Auto Bulb” and “Laughable Butane Bob” are both anagrams of “Analogue Bubblebath”, the name of the releases through which the AFX moniker has garnered most of its recognition. And then there’s “Bit”, a fairly quiet bit of noise that’s six seconds long, a track whose creation and release has surely meant a guffaw or three for James at his audience’s expense.
The beats that James put together those ten years ago hold up quite well, however, as experiments in drum ‘n’ bass and the James-specialty brand of drill ‘n’ bass. “Wabby Legs” is a favorite, progressing as it does from a quirky, stuttery, yet relatively subtle drill ‘n’ bass tune into something resembling a quick, powerful jungle workout with a solid beat. “Laughable Butane Bob” is mostly a lush amalgam of synth melodies and drill beats, but it’s in the small stretches where the synths take a break that it truly shines, turning into a percussion workout that shares some similarities with James’s own Caustic Window project. “Every Day”, from the second EP, is a showcase of James’s mastery of quirky melodies, expressed through various distorted synth sounds, on top of one of the closest things to “traditional” drum ‘n’ bass that James could ever be accused of putting together. There’s no weak link here to speak of, unless of course we count the aforementioned “Bit”.
The AFX name has recently been resurrected for the sake of the Analord series of acid 12” singles that James has released over the course of 2005, and, much like the last actual Aphex Twin release to date (2001’s Drukqs), they’re decent, if a bit underwhelming. If nothing else, Hangable Auto Bulb can bring us back to a time when the AFX (or Aphex Twin, or Polygon Window, or whoever the hell Mr. James wanted to be that day) blew our minds and fried our synapses. Now, if only we could figure out how to get James to do that with a release that’s not already ten years old.