As we’re all rubbing our eyes and blocking our ears for the inevitable musical schlock that informs our post-terrorist era, a new Aphex Twin album comes as something of a relief. Heck, when a hirsute techno-prophet abandons his premature retirement and descends from the mountain to bestow upon us all two (count ‘em—two) shiny tablets of sound, the heavens should resound with joy.
Well, maybe not. The new Aphex Twin release, Drukqs is an amorphous mulch peppered with a handful of tasty, exciting tracks. It seems almost deliberately insignificant, like an elaborate inside joke. But since he lives on Mount Olympus, I think winging our way two discs of uneven material might be some sort of Statement. He dares us to ignore him. Drukqs, eh? My own free sample ain’t sending me rushing back to the dealer, not this time.
Richard James is—let me dig through my files here—a man of contradictions. A brilliant, hilarious genius and a somber, mendacious recluse, he knows how to dump his strange product onto the market and promote it insidiously via the clubs, the insider music press, and a variety of hip noms de techno such as Caustic Window, Power-Pill, and AFX. Yet his oeuvre is much more uneven than the aura surrounding it. The legendary Selected Ambient Works, Vol. 2, for example, offers nothing but track after track of gushy slow-mo sonic taffee-pull. On the other hand, his Richard D. James Album is as much fun as a game of Rock’em Sock’em Robots, and its “Girl/Boy Song” is probably the most right-on evocation of adolescent puppy love I’ve ever heard. A follow up EP, the sinister “Come to Daddy” was the “Good Golly Miss Molly” of an entire micro-generation, even as it dragged the listener and musical history further down the circles of hell. But still, nobody much liked “Windowlicker” despite the cool title. And that was supposed to be the end. Exhausted by twiddling knobs and collecting royalty checks, he’s threatened to retire several times since then. I guess enough people ignored his threats: he decided to do Drukqs, an album whose title might as well have been inspired by the same demented numerologist who demanded Dionne Warwick add an “E” to the end of her name.
So what do we have here? Two 50-minute CDs with 15 tracks each. The tunes oscillate between exciting hyperactive beat-happening compositions and tedious exercises in piano practice or can-banging. There seems to be no real content to the album, and the tracks follow no theme or pattern. Most of the tracks are titled with enticingly random strings of letters that look like they were unearthed in Wales, belched by Chaucer, or cadged from a Piers Anthony novel. I submitted ‘em all to my neighborhood semiotician but she hasn’t returned my calls. I kinda figured out that Mr. James’ parents are named Lorna and Derek, since the 31-second track that consists entirely of a dull happy-birthday message on his answering machine is entitled “Lornaderek”. And “Cock/Ver 10”—complete with ejaculation sound-effects and rapist samples—is evidently version number ten of his sonic tributes to a penis. Finally, “Taking Control” features a robot that takes control of the drum machine (so he says, anyway). But hell if I know what to make of “Bbydhyonchord” and “Petiatil Cx Htdui”.
I should point out that before you race to the record store, like President Bush tells you to, to buy the enigmatic disc, you should be aware that everything on it sounds like it is about six years old. Most people expect this particular reclusive guru to be constantly pushing the envelope, crossing musical frontiers, descending into untold abysses. Not this time—with the exception of his piano-practice pieces, all the good stuff has that same skittery high-treble feel of the Richard D. James Album, with nothing new to add to the recipe. We were all on the edge of our seats back in the day, when his tunes were an explosive mixture of ray guns, mouth harps, and ping-pong balls. On Drukqs he just opens up his box and draws out the same dusty old props. It’s definitely fun, but it’s played out. Maybe he’s demonstrating that in the fading genre of electronica it’s now more radical to march in place than to race relentlessly forward. Or he’s telling us that sloppy seconds are where it’s at. Or he thinks he’s the Ramones—edgy simply ‘cause he trots out the same album over and over.
Since the tracks are all randomly arranged, it’s hard for me to describe one disc as being much different than the other. Disc one begins with a nice intro tune, “Jynweythek Ylow”, which promises more than the album delivers. As with anyone, I put on disc one, track one expecting a meticulously constructed masterpiece. But this track will lead you astray, because it’s just one of many little boring instrumental excursions that lard the album, such as “Strotha Tynhe”, “Hy a Scullyas Lyf a Dhagrow”, “Btoum-Roumada”, “Penty Harmonium”, and “Petiatil Cx Htdui”. On the plus side, he’s staying away from his computers and actually tinkling the ivories in real time. An admirable effort, but clearly that’s not his calling. Anyway, there are some treasures on the first disc. “Vordhosbn” is a nifty Old Skool Aphex track, full of knee-slapping and porch-dancing funky hypno-riffs that cackle at posterity. “Gwarek 2” is a genuinely frightening tune, with torture-chamber sonics and ominous scrapings throughout—play it during your next Halloween trick-or-treat set-up and the kids will run for the hills.
For those unconvinced that the man is flesh and blood, check out the pornographic simulations of “Cock/Ver 10” and “Omgyjya Switch 7”, the latter being a nice squalid meditation on sadomasochism, complete with funny cat-o-nine-tails effects and a rather too urgent and satisfied vocal sample. If ominous rumbling could be converted into pop hooks, “Gwely Mernans” would top the charts: it enters your earhole like a thick trickle of molasses and twists your synapses so that you jerk awake at midnight to a new Dickensian universe. Definitely a head-turner. The centerpiece of the first disc, however, is a little number called “Mt. Saint Michel Mix+St. Michaels Mount”—eight minutes of indescribable cacophony that seems pretty far removed from Cezanne and Henry James. And in case you thought I was prejudiced against the man’s descent into Erik Satie clavichord wonderland, there is a genuinely fine piano-practice tune called “Avril 14th” that might bring a tear or two to your eyes.
Disc two has my personal favorite track, “54 Cymru Beats”—a long, crackling, chaotic, joyous, funky tune that samples a Speak’n'Spell and will definitely wake up your neighbors. “Taking Control” is pretty funny, though I’m sure no one would guess it was by the Aphex Twin if you played it for ‘em—sounds more like Kraftwerk thrice removed. “Afx237 V7” is another electronica stand-up routine: a tune that begins as a croaky tribute to the Fonz and detonates into shards of repetition from there. And even though it comes near the end, better not miss “Ziggomatic V17”, which is the most ziggomatic soundscape I’ve encountered yet this year. Yet disc two also has the useless birthday greeting “Lornaderek” , a schlocky piano piece called “Father”, a flatulent groan called “Bit 4”, and some tag-along bubblebaths called “Ruglen Holon” (inept gamelan), “Beskhu3epnm” (spells relief), and “Nanou 2” (Mork ain’t buying). I await the publication of the Aphex Twin Joke File.
So what you’ve heard is true: the album is a bit of a disappointment. Or to put it more kindly, the half is greater than the whole. From the song titles down to the silly downtime un-funky gamelan interludes, he is daring anyone to review the album, or to make sense of it. In a recent interview he waxes facetious by saying he just collected tracks from Aphex imitators and tossed ‘em all together. Me, I think he’s just pining for a fresh source of royalty checks so he can buy some more drukqs. Or he’s just dispensing drukqs to his eager fans. As William S. Burroughs informed us all, “junk is the ideal product, the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy”. Yep.
So Mr. James is also trying to taunt the clean critics into a torrent of anguished explanations for an infuriating album, so that his legacy will include garrulous essays like this one alongside his musical works. If that’s the case I commend him on his efforts. And I anxiously await “Cock/Ver 11”.