Aphex Twin is a bit like The Beatles at this stage; whether you are in deep or have just a passing regard for him, most people at least know the name.
I remember reading about Aphex Twin in Select magazine in 1992. Even then he was a figure held in reverence: a teenage prodigy, who while part of the rave scene, was on the fringes of electronic music, and built his own machines.
While I was intrigued, I can’t remember hearing my first Aphex track until three years later. It was under the pseudonym Polygon Window – the last track on a Warp compilation called Artificial Intelligence 2. The track was called My Teapot. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was by far and away the worst piece of shit I had ever heard. It sounded like a hamster on the bog. What a piss-take. Then I listened to Surfing on Sine Waves, again under the pseudonym Polygon Window, and my perception changed, not just of Aphex Twin but of the possibilities of dance music.
I was transitioning from grunger to raver and found in that album something magical: consciousness-altering body music for dancing, otherworldly sound design and strange esoteric melodies, at once visceral and intellectual. Braindance, as James himself put it. New worlds were revealed to me in that 49 minute, 2 second piece of electronic perfection, new ways of listening. It’s still my favourite techno album.
I got The Richard D James album in a Christmas stocking the year it came out and rinsed it until I knew every bleep and click, internalising its deconstruction of drum & bass and reassembly into something dense, layered, humorous and completely individual. In contrast to the long 10-15 minute excursions common in dance music in 1996, each track on the Richard D James album clocked in between 3 and 4 minutes. James said he wanted it to be like a Beatles album.
Windowlicker is for me the best 12-inch of all time in at least three different genres. In university I must have listened to Selected Ambient Works 1 or I Care Because You Do, if not every day, certainly every other day. Both records are so deep in me that it is impossible to now tell, as a good friend once remarked, whether they are good or not anymore. I can make a go of applying my critical faculties to that question but I’ll never be able to get near the magic in those records.
When Analord came out I had a choice – collect all of them or none. I chose to collect none. I’ve never been a completist. I ran through the MP3s on my headphones going to work every day a few years ago, and must admit there’s great stuff on there, and stuff I can’t be bothered with, a bit like The White Album: the best and the worst of. I had a listen to Cheetah a few times and wondered if I’d ever buy another Aphex Twin record (the last one I bought was Drukqs). It’s not as if The Cheetah EP is bad, it’s just to Aphex Twin discography what The Straight Story is to David Lynch’s filmography.
As I write this I am listening to The Collapse EP on an old technics turntable that my girlfriend and I bought in Manchester before we moved to Cologne. I must have listened to it 20 times today already. I keep flipping it over. In a few days maybe I’ll get bored of it, I don’t know, but right now I love it. And you know what, I’m not sure how different the music is to the music on, say Syro, his last proper album.
Maybe it’s the beautiful Designer’s Republic artwork. Maybe it’s just the perfection of the format – four tracks, perfectly formed, condensing the whole Aphex Twin range from drill & Bass to ambient across one 12-inch. Maybe it’s the dense, varied, sound-palette featuring synth sounds from the earliest productions, familiar melodies counter-posed with innovative sound design.
Like the Richard D James album, The Collapse EP is bursting with ideas: fiercely avant-garde, yet packaged in a sort of electronic pop format. The drum programming is super-clever, ever-changing, with references to all sorts. Yet this record is, like all Aphex records, distinctly, unmistakably Aphex Twin.
This EP has made me rediscover the Limerick man (I’m claiming him as Irish). It’s like meeting an old mate you haven’t seen in a decade, ducking into the nearest pub and getting pleasantly pissed, realising they haven’t changed a bit. Surely My Teapot couldn’t have been that bad. My head must have been too filled with overwrought nonsense like Soundgarden to have appreciated it at the time… actually I just found it on YouTube there, and you know what, it’s still shite.
- Jack Hairbrain is an Irish DJ based in Cologne, via Portadown, Derry, Belfast and Manchester. If you don’t find him in the club, he teams up with artist Garth Simmons for Bedtime Stories on Manchester-based Reform Radio