A long 13 years have passed since Richard D. James last gave the world an album-length piece of his mind. Not that the artist currently known as Aphex Twin has been any less productive in the interim, running a record label, taking DJ gigs, and releasing a wealth of remix discs, EPs, and singles, often under pseudonyms he’d only admit to well after the fact. But the LP remains recorded music’s default gestalt, despite near-total obsolescence, and so Syro is delivered to us as an event: first came the blimp, then the silence-breaking interviews, then the packed-house listening parties across the Western world. It isn’t anything new for reticent producers to hide out in northern latitudes — Venetian Snares and Ben Frost are currently doing so in Winnipeg and Iceland respectively, and Finland’s Mono Junk pretty much pioneered the practice — but Aphex Twin is uniquely iconic. Nobody besides maybe Kraftwerk commands as much cache as James across the divide of mainstream and chinstroker taste cultures.
That cache rests primarily upon his reputation for innovation, and there’s little reason to doubt Syro will be judged any differently. If anything, it’ll bear the burden of reckoning with the last ten years or so of electronic music, with its drastic fusions, fractures, and realignments. At the peak of cerebral techno’s commercial power, Aphex Twin was leading the charge, the soft-spoken protagonist of musical progress. Now, he’s held responsible for it.
While this narrative tends to be taken pretty much as a given among the devout, rarely does anyone bother to specify what the hell “progress” even means. If it’s meant to have heroic overtones of shaking pop music to its very core, then the halcyon days of “Donkey Rhubarb” and “Windowlicker”, when James had his largest and most diverse audience and told Madonna he’d only remix her if she redid her vocals as porcine grunts, would surely be his artistic apex. But when the same fixation on the “future” or “forward-thinking” fastens to the far less user-friendly stuff, “progress” assumes a transcendental meaning much as “art” has among pedants desperate to dignify the things they like.
What a drag. Unburdened of revolutionary duties, Syro is an excellent expression of James’ quirky and obsessive talent, full stop. It is as deep and satisfying as it is unpretentious. If like Simon Reynolds you found Drukqs, the Aphex Twin double-album preceding Syro, to be “overprogrammed”, you might not find much solace on Syro, which is redolent with digital samples and cascading beats (though far more economical, at 52 minutes). Yet it is less confrontational. The 13 tracks gathered here reflect manic studio rearrangements, often in the middle of composing, and proceed as moment-to-moment variations on half-second themes. Even at their more discordant, they present themselves horizontally, to be surveyed and studied with clarity.
Maybe that sounds like a drag, too, but even those of us who, say, know the difference between house and garage but don’t know or care what came first or where, know that the most consistent pleasure to be found in Aphex Twin’s work is found in the details. This was true of the ultrafast Surfing on Sine Waves and the ultraslow ambient collections, oft-championed entries in James’ back catalog. It was also true of the unfairly maligned Drukqs, and of its more radio-ready predecessors. Syro rewards patience while also leading it down the occasional garden path. James’ impish sense of humor and disarming sense of drama recuperates lost faith, but like the quasi-Cornish Drukqs and the hieroglyphs of Selected Ambient Works Volume II, the naked code and nonsense words in Syro’s track listing (“s950tx16wasr10 (earth portal mix)”, “produk 29”) discourage mass consumption. Notwithstanding “CIRCLONT6A (syrobonkus mix)” — a piece of clipped bedroom pop recalling the microhouse of “Fingerbib” and “Bbydhyonchord” — there’s not much in the way of proper songs here.
Yet Syro is hardly alienating. On the contrary, it is by turns raw, intricate, and intimate. The axiom of electronic music’s iciness, upheld by the genre’s defenders and detractors alike, continues to undermine its emotional richness. Aphex Twin has long specialized in letting machines take on a life of their own, and Syro navigates the uncanny valley between analog’s erratic abstractions and digital’s hi-def simulacra with a keen ear for hidden potential. Sampled snares and spoken word stumble over stammering 606s, flatulent 303s, and the heaves and sighs of synths and effects pedals. The artist’s chatty young son is given the floor on “4 bit 9d api+e+6” and rendered completely unintelligible, but achieves a kind of liturgical bliss all the same, with the aid of a third act polysynth drone. James clearly still likes his privacy, but Syro bears an unmistakably personal touch.
Sometimes that touch means scary-funny, like the stereophonic laughter that cuts into “PAPAT4 (pineal mix)”, and other times it means he’s more at home in darker tones; the trip-hop atmospherics of “syro u473t8+e (piezoluminescence mix)” equal Volume II’s apocalyptic menace where the major chord noodling of “XMAS EVET10 (thanaton3 mix)” sounds aimless. But melody is made texture in James’ spacious compositions, leaving us to train our ears on whatever we please — like, say, the drum-n-bass stutter that structures “XMAS”. And really, this is how Aphex Twin deserves to be heard, even vis-à-vis deceptively straightforward stuff like the Analord acid techno throwbacks: as a glimpse into not a future that may never come to pass, but rather the mental machinery of as prodigiously brilliant a music-maker as we deserve. As such, Syro is exactly what it needs to be.