Timecode: 1995. Richard D. James wakes up from his evening nap; lifts the cucumbers off his eyelids, scratches his chin, stretches, yawns. Stumbles over to the computer. Coupla tapes in the basket today: some crap by Nine Inch Nails, and a promising bit of noise from Die Fantastischen Vier. The NIN sucks, might as well just slap it around, bruise it good, turn the whimpering track into something else entirely. But the other bit, the Fantastischen Vier, that’s a great novelty tune in itself. It’ll be a riproaring gas to ram through the old Aphex machine. Hopefully the check will clear this time.
I don’t know how Mr. James works, really, that’s just my fantasy. But here we are in 2003 and the burly moguls at Warp Records have bestowed upon us two glimmering CDs filled with various Aphex Twin remixes from 1993 to the present, and not only have they turned the assets of all the collector-scum Aphex vinylophiles into worthless recycled petroleum (as all those rare 12-inches are now handily assembled in one place), but they’re (probably) letting Mr. James take another thin sliver of profit off the same shit he used to exchange for cash in an envelope back in the heady ’90s. 26 Mixes for Cash is a great set, probably the most thoroughly back-to-front entertaining Aphex Twin release since the Richard D. James Album back in 1997. Go figure, it’s a compilation. Those of you who groaned and grinned through Drukqs in 2001 probably concluded that Aphex Twin has seen better days. Well, here they are.
I’m not sure if any sonic scribblers out there have articulated an auteur theory of the remix yet, but 26 Mixes for Cash sounds exactly like an Aphex Twin album, even though it mostly consists of tracks by such disparate artists as Saint Etienne, Curve, Meat Beat Manifesto, Beatniks, Mike Flowers Pops, Jesus Jones, even Philip Glass and David Bowie. This means that the original artists, the “creators” of these tracks, were just clay to be molded, and they all get destroyed by Richard D. James’s wet fists. The press kit says, “If a track was any good, it wouldn’t need remixing, would it?”, and the implication is that throughout his remixing career he was just making improvements on mediocre crap. Maybe so, and the fact that he’s turned down remixing jobs from Madonna and Limp Bizkit means that cash surely ain’t his only motivation. But remixing at its best is an act of playful abandon, a jump into an indecent thicket of artistic intention and slippery sounds. The result is not to improve or magnify a track, but to peel it inside out, graph it, remold it, deflower it, mark it with your scent. It is not a utilitarian exercise, or an attempt to make a track “better”. A remix should never be a fix.
Still, there’s something about this set that keeps me from seeking out the collected works of Seefeel or Nav Katze, and I think that maybe Aphex Twin is a sonic touch-up artist after all. And despite his reputation for mysterioso randomness, he sure knew what he was doing in laying out this set: disc one consists of mellow dreamscapes, while disc two is mostly loud cacophonous noise. I much prefer disc two, but let’s dig into disc one for a bit, since it contains one of the most fascinating remixes I’ve ever heard.
Those of you who remember the soundscape of 1993 — a neon sand dune of discarded grunge axes and blue-veined electronica newborns — will probably bow your heads in remembrance when you cue up disc one, track one: AFX Fast Mix of Seefeel’s “Time to Find Me”. The minor-key angel, her voice bending into an arc of glory and pity, descends and anoints our foreheads as the funky machinery speeds up all around her. Next thing you know, the seraphim are plucking each other out of the clouds and diving into the frigid Atlantic, and Aphex’s Big Drum Mix of Gavin Bryars’ “Raising the Titanic” burbles and pounds around a strange choral beauty that would be schlocky in any other context. Tribal fury and angelic peace, here are the twin poles in this mixer’s aesthetic, already sinking through the soundscape of 1994. These two openers lead into a fishy mix which is sometimes dead boring (the Aphex Twin Care Mix of Gentle People’s “Journey”), fascinating (Aphex Twin Reconstruction #2 of Jesus Jones’ “Zeros and Ones”), or annoying (Saint Etienne’s “Your Head My Voice”, where the original songscape is just haphazardly covered by a pile of dumb beats). But the good stuff is really great. I especially love the melodic Aphex robotron that inhabits “Une Femme N’Est Pas Un Homme” by the Beatniks, and the squeaky eunuch who turns into a shrieking sine wave during Nobuzaku Takemura’s “Let My Fish Loose” (which also has a nice acoustic guitar solo).
But all these tracks revolve around the first disc’s centerpiece, the Aphex Twin remix of Philip Glass’s “Heroes”, which was itself a revisioning of David Bowie’s original tune. Full disclosure: I am not a David Bowie fan, and in fact I consider him one of music history’s most successful charlatans. But I do enjoy some of his tracks, and “Heroes” was one of my favorites for a while. So imagine my surprise when this strange orchestral swirly-burly thing comes wafting out of my stereo speakers, with Bowie’s vocals at their most naked and overwrought, nary a beat in sight. At first I thought it was one of the most annoying remix disasters I’ve ever heard. But then I listened again, and the way the violins pulsate as if they’re escorting platelets along a red vein, the way these eerie hellbound echoes start wrapping around David’s little solo turn, the strange rumblings that kick start the orchestral filigrees — it all sounds so goofy and reverent that I love it. One of the strangest and most compelling remixes I’ve ever heard. And you can tell that Richard D. James truly worships this shit, treats it with kid gloves. Which is completely unnecessary.
This compilation’s better half (disc two) starts off with some ominous teutonic mumbling, the theatrical rehearsal for a most theatrical track, the Baldhu Mix of Die Fantstischen Vier’s “Krieger”. Holy Odin’s Hammer, is this a great tune, all comical-serious German vocals, fist-pumping hooks, and a closing bit of Aphex’s trademark ephedrine beeps and skronks. The rest of the disc powers on from there, and there’s hardly a dull moment. (In fact, the only dull moment I could discern was the remix of Curve’s “Falling Free” which is supposedly an “all-time classic” — and I do remember the remix getting some airplay back in 1992 — but boy does it shrivel away in comparison with its betters.) Just you try to ignore, for example, the warrior momentum of “We Have Arrived” by Mescalinum United, which sounds like Voltron greasing his ball bearings and getting funky in the desert. Or the Helston Flora Remix of Baby Ford’s “Normal”, which gets even more strange momentum out of its retro-70s bass-plucky polyrhythms and tingly-itchy electro-gnats. Wagon Christ’s “Spotlight” sounds like a battle between firecrackers, woodpeckers, a music box, and a Tupperware container, but you’ll play it again. And best of all, there are the brand new tracks (copyright 2003) which all the hardcore Aphex fans will be paying good money for. The Acid Edit of his own “Windowlicker” finally rescues that somewhat generic track from the dustbin of history. Well, it transfers it from one dustbin to another, but I dig it. Even weirder is the “Original mix” of “SAW2 CD1 TRK2” (from his Selected Ambient Works 2), which sounds kinda like the finger-stroking-a-glass-rim of the original, but with beats and bass to curdle it. Not bad, but not ambient.
Disco and MOR are in the mix too, alongside the monstrous beats and screeks. DMX Krew’s “You Can’t Hide Your Love” — nuevo-party music with infinite appeal — sounds barely remixed at all, and I like it that way. On the other hand, “Debase” by Mike Flowers Pops is a truly beautiful and spacious transgression into loungy-MOR territory, one of those tunes that slinks around your skin like springtime goose bumps, and won’t depart. I woke up hearing it more than once.
My favorite track is called “Remix by AFX”, with no artist or song title attached (cognoscenti please advise). Stop-start dance-free disco rhythms. Distorted vocals that sound like vomiting. Tinkly keyboards in the background. It’s everything that makes Aphex Twin great. Hmmm . . . wait a sec . . . “Written by Massey / Simpson / Price / Richard D. James” — was this originally an 808 State track? Good to see that someone’s sneaking through the licensing loopholes.
What about the two Nine Inch Nails tracks, you ask? Well one of them (“The Beauty of Being Numb, Section B”) is an ominous mellow groove (with some sorta respirator at the end) that sounds nothing like NIN, while the other (“At the Heart of It All”) sounds a bit more menacing but without Trent Reznor’s breath stinking up the place. Both of them say “created by Aphex Twin” (in other words, they are not mixes). And both are under four minutes long. “If it is done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.”
On the whole, I doubt that this set will exaggerate Aphex Twin’s reputation much, and in terms of pure convenience and abundance of good tracks, I rate it pretty high. Sometimes an artist looks better when bathing in the light of his inferiors, and that’s pretty much what you’re getting here. Good stuff, better than Drukqs.