Who the hell does Richard D. James think he's kidding here?
Who the hell does Richard D. James think he's kidding here? Or rather, why is he trying to kid us?
You may have noticed that the featured artist on this disc is not Richard D. James, or Aphex Twin, or any of his many other colorful aliases (AFX, Polygon Window, Prichard G. Jams). What we have here is the debut recording of The Tuss: "mysterious artists who prefer not to be described or pictured" (from their promo sheet). This promo sheet is itself a marvel of winking subterfuge. It's usually considered lazy writing to excerpt from a press release in an official review, but I think circumstances will allow this exception:
Rushup Edge is the debut album of new Rephlex artists, "The Tuss", a dynamic duo discovered via intensive MySpace exploration by the A&R department. Apparently touted by Planet Mu, XL Recordings, Record Makers and Ninja Tune all at the same time, they eventually decided to sign with Rephlex for reasons of principle. The label is very excited to find an act with this degree of promise and hope to be releasing even more work soon.
The Tuss' official line seems inspired by the time FFRR signed Chicago house legend Lil Louis' smash hit "French Kiss", even though they had no information about him at all at the time! The Tuss offers little biographical info, preferring to concentrate on the musical merits, which they describe as "Braindance".
Even if you had not seen any of the previous scuttlebutt practically confirming that the Tuss and James were one and the same, this promo sheet would put an end to all speculation. First, Rephlex Records was started in 1991 by James and his friend Grant Wilson-Claridge. Planet Mu, XL Recordings, Record Makers, and Ninja Tune are all independent electronic music labels which could conceivably be considered Rephlex's peers. XL and Ninja Tune both launched in the early '90s alongside Rephlex, while Planet Mu was founded by Mike Paradinas, whose earliest recordings as μ-Ziq were published by Rephlex. (Paradinas is also a former James collaborator.) "Braindance" has been a term associated with Richard D. James' particular brand of warped acid-house influence IDM since the early '90s.
Conspiracy theories aside, there's also the small matter of the music itself, which could not be more clearly the product of Richard D. James if he had personally inscribed every disc "Love, Richard" with a Sharpie marker. Although his music is primarily instrumental, the production is still definitively recognizable: there's a certain kind of hectic precision, a seemingly haphazard and hand-made but actually quite meticulous ADD-inspired chaos that only Aphex Twin can muster. Other acts like Venetian Snares and Squarepusher aspire to something similar, but Aphex Twin is still distinctive based on the kinds of sounds he uses, which are instantly familiar even to electronic music laymen: a slightly warped minor-key synthesizer burble that seems redolent of both childhood melancholy and dark sexual perversion runs through almost all his major work. It gives Aphex Twin's music a truly unsettling and emotionally ambiguous subtext, the likes of which few of his peers could ever hope, or want, to replicate.
Plus, there is the added detail of the Yamaha GX1. Admittedly I would not have caught this detail myself (thanks, Wikipedia!), but because of its unbelievable scarcity, the Yamaha GX1 is perhaps James's most distinctive single instrument. Less than ten were made, at a cost of $60,000, and it appears throughout Rushup Edge like an incriminating fingerprint on a murder weapon. Unless the Tuss is secretly Stevie Wonder or Benny Andersson of ABBA (perhaps a distant possibility, considering the man once wrote a Broadway musical about chess), the finger points rather definitively towards Mr. Richard D. James.
The "album" (more properly an EP, as it barely clocks in at thirty-two minutes) contains six tracks, each a satisfying exercise in different facets of the Aphex Twin sound. "Synthacon 9" is classic Aphex, beginning with weird muffled speech sounds before progressing into an intricate acid house beat the likes of which you may have heard on 2005's Analord series or, further back, 1995's I Care Because You Do. "Last Rushup 10" is a darker number, with more "traditional" electro breakbeats and pseudo-jungle stylings set against mordant synthesizer riffs. "Shiz Ko E" almost sounds like a Warp-ed remix of Orbital's "Nothing Left" suite: it's got the same rhythm bed and is set in the same key, even if it aspires to impish insouciance instead of the latter track's magisterial narrative. "Rushup I Bank 12" is more frenetic even than "Last Rushup 10", built on dizzying layers of increasingly anxious rhythmic congestion and constantly shifting drum sounds. It's an epic for all its four and a half minutes, as dense and satisfying as anything RDJ has released since his late-'90s heyday.
"Death Fuck Mental Beats" is, as the title may suggest, straight-up chaos, with fractured beats and off-key synth patterns dueling with fractured prepared piano melodies a la Drukqs' John Cage-influenced passages. "Goodbye Rute", the final track, is also fittingly the album's quietest track, with subdued beats and a sustained sense of minor-key quietude which recalls the early Selected Ambient Works. Just about every segment of James' career is recalled somewhere during Rushup Edge's running time, and it's hard to escape the notion that, if the album does not tread a single foot in any new direction, it is as perfect a summation of James' career to date as you could hope to find. As good as that is, and it is very good, there is still something slightly antiquated about the proceedings. Since the current decade began, James' work has come under increasing criticism for a perceived lack of forward momentum. Drukqs was seen by many as a bloated exercise in contract fulfillment, and while his subsequent "retirement" was about as convincing (and long lasting) as Jay-Z's, there was still something of a consensus that the man who's music had once sounded like nothing so much as the day after tomorrow had been surpassed by circumstances -- the IDM version of the 1939 World's Fair.
Of course, I am hesitant to endorse such a consensus myself. Even if bits and pieces of the larger culture may have caught up to Aphex Twin, the man himself remains a significant talent. But if there is one thing that separates Aphex Twin as a presence from any of his peers in the electronic music world, it is the consistent way in which James assumes the role of the "imp of the perverse", shocking, unsettling and at times even insulting his audience in the name of novelty. This is something that fans have just had to learn to deal with: behind the provocative façade of the "Come to Daddy" and "Windowlicker" videos, James remained a visionary, even an occasionally brilliant musician.
Which brings us to the very question with which I began this review: what gives? Sure, releasing an EP of very familiar music under a fake band name with fake band-member names (Brian and Karen Tregaskin, they even have their own MySpace page) sounds like something he'd do. The Tregaskin siblings are even supposedly Cornish -- coincidentally, James grew up in Cornwall too! "The Tuss" is also apparently Estonian slang for the female sex organ. At this point, you have to wonder why James didn't just paste his face atop the sinister looking sheep which adorns the album's only artwork, a la the children of Come to Daddy and the women of Windowlicker.
James has always been a perverse sort, but there is something irrefutably futile about his current behavior: as much respect as he still commands, James is nowhere near the central figure in electronic music he once was. Many of the fans who supported him throughout his heyday in the '90s have, if not moved on, probably got better things to do than to wade through obscure music blogs on a daily basis for signs of his latest secretive releases. (Not to mention tracking down the 11 vinyl-only Analord releases offered at a steep import markup for us Yanks.) Does he crave this kind of willful obscurity? Based on his career to date, it's a good bet that he does. But I'm no closer to understanding his enigmatic behavior now than I was the first time I came across his music all those years ago.