We were warned. Before Richard D. James resurfaced as Aphex Twin in 2014 with his delightfully colorful album Syro, he revealed in interviews that he had at least a dozen albums worth of material on deck and waiting. In that light, the sudden appearance of Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt. 2 isn’t such a big shock. On the other hand, the genetic makeup of this EP may take some getting used to for those who expect James to dabble purely in electronic sounds. This little work comes with all the blips and clangs you are accustomed to hear from Richard D. James as Aphex Twin, Caustic Window, Polygon Window, or AFX. How these sounds came about is the subtle twist.
The title is a case of truth in advertising (only I don’t know where volume one is). The sounds on Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt. 2 are built from acoustic piano, prepared piano and good old-fashioned percussion — you know, where you take two things and smack them together. The only electronic manipulation involved is how they are all strung together. James doesn’t take the gimmick very far. There are 13 tracks, but five of them are under a minute in length. Some of them amount to nothing more than a sample, like the nineteen-second snare drum roll named “snar2” or the looped drum beat “0035 1-Audio” which lasts for a whopping 26 seconds. Some early reviews of Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt. 2 accuse James of making nothing more than a novelty release — that technological know-how is a well and good, but it doesn’t always make for fun listening. It’s certainly true that Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt. 2 isn’t perfect. There are some tracks that go absolutely nowhere. But the ones that do actually move remind us of why Richard D. James continues to be held in such high esteem within electronic music’s past, present, and, hopefully, its future.
The EP opens with one of its more accessible tracks, “diskhat ALL prepared1mixed 13”, which was also leaked on SoundCloud by James himself prior to release. The listener is introduced to the prepared piano right away with a sinister sounding single-note progression way down in the bass clef (prepared piano is when objects are placed against the piano’s strings so that the notes can have a more percussive effect). As “diskhat ALL prepared1mixed 13” rolls along, more sharply syncopated sounds are thrown into the mix. It grooves too, so much that you’ll forget that you’re listening only to acoustically-recorded sounds. The tracks shrink in size as the EP progresses and song ideas, for better or worse, are demoted to two-minute experiments where a nice established beat doesn’t get the privilege to carry anything really cool. Remember how I said that some of these tracks go nowhere? “DISKPREPT1” and “disk prep calrec2 barn dance ( s l o )” are two such tracks. James establishes a mood but seems to stop there, not unlike constructing a room but not providing any furniture (cool room, though).
Because of that, “piano un10 it happened” appears out of nowhere in all its beauty. It’s only 1:48, but it sounds unabashedly pure. It sounds like, for one afternoon, James chose not to be bothered by whether his new idea sounded too soft or syrupy and just recorded it. It’s solo piano, a break in the clouds amid the homework assignment of making an acoustic dance album. “hat5c 0001 rec-4”, the EP’s concluding track, would be another one of those go-nowhere no-nothing tracks if it weren’t for two saving factors. One is the disembodied noises that hang above the mix like spirits swimming in reverb. The other is the throat-slitting ending, the opposite of a grand exit.
No, Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt. 2 isn’t going to go down in history as one of Richard D. James’s crown jewels. It will go down as an odd little duck because James understand that sometimes you need to baffle your audience while engaging them. That’s how you get the crown in the first place. If you want to stay on top, you can’t bore people with predictability. Making your strange experiments very public not only keeps you fresh in everyone’s minds, but it helps provide a context for what is your best work.