Artist Spotlight: Aphex Twin

Richard James is a fairly common name…even in music. Today, however, I am talking about Richard David James, who is mostly known for his electronic music. He goes by many monikers such as AFX, Caustic Window, Polygon Window, and The Tuss. He is best known, however, as Aphex Twin. It is his work as Aphex Twin that will be my focus for this Spotlight, if only to prevent the number of Youtube embeds on this page from freezing up my browser this time.

Fair warning: any information about his life or his opinions may be completely false, as James has been known to lie in interviews just for the fun of it.

Richard D. James was born in 1971 in Limerick, Ireland, but grew up in Cornwall, England. He started producing music at age 12 and became a disc jockey as a teenager. Those previous two sentences may be false, but whatever. His music has changed and evolved, but there are a few general constants. He often uses the same-sounding synths, though he has a lot of machines to produce a lot of variations on those sounds. While some of his tracks are melodically simple, many of them are rather intricate and heavily layered, sometimes switching back and forth between different sections or going off on musical tangents in lieu of a verse-chorus structure or even the standard electronic music structures.

Others may treat electronic music as a means to get the party going, as an extension of their view of the modern life, as an audio vision of an imagined future, as a weapon to attack the masses, as a means to test the conventions of music, as a tool to explore the limits of sound itself, or as a path to a higher plane of existence. To me, James seems to treat electronic music as a toy; a really expensive multi-part toy that he could accessorize, tinker with, take apart, and repurpose as he saw fit. While some of his contemporaries have tried to either bury their humanity under machinery and audio algorithms or go the other way by use of organic elements like guest vocals and samples of other people’s music, James often tended to prefer the more subtle hints, sampling his own voice, snippets of recordings from family members, or random audio (often from porn) that was lying about. This lead to some quirks shining through, be they reflections on the mundane, rather sweet exchanges with his parents, or lighthearted threats of sexual violence. He is one of the most famous faces in the genre of Intelligent Dance Music, or IDM. IDM is a genre that someone else can explain, since I always get into trouble when I try to describe musical genres…which is why I make so many of these Artist Spotlights.

Analogue Bubblebath Vol I (1991)
This EP was the first release of Richard D. James…at least I think so; he released a bunch of stuff during this time. This was originally released under his Aphex Twin moniker, but later released under AFX to coincide with the rest of the Analogue Bubblebath series. Much of his early sound was already here, kind of gentle electro occasionally mixed with harsher noises. Entrance to Exit, a collaboration with some guy named Tom Middleton, is probably the liveliest of the tracks, taking a sample from an orchestral piece (as well as another random vocal sample) and adding a club-friendly beat and a few other electronic noises underneath.

Entrance to Exit – 4:23

Didgeridoo (1992)
This was, supposedly, the EP that got James truly noticed, thanks to the title track…although maybe not, since the track was released a few months earlier as “Aboriginal Mix” in AFX’s Analogue Bubblebath 2 EP. James claims (but may have been joking) that it cleared the dancefloor. It is a perfectly valid dance number regardless, with the main feature being the constant drone that is meant to imitate a didgeridoo.

Didgeridoo –7:11

Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)
This was Aphex Twin’s debut album. And it changed the world of electronic music…somehow. I was totally not hip to the electronic music world at the time, so I do not exactly know how this album changed things, but maybe someone else can explain. The album title is a little misleading. While the music is ambient adjacent, only one track would count under the more popular definition of ambient, while the rest are mostly really gentle and atmospheric dance tracks. You can sort of chillout to them if you don’t want to dance. Also, it has not been confirmed to my knowledge whether “85-92” honestly means that some of these tracks were made in the mid 1980’s, when James was still in his teens. In any case, you can hear the general feel of the album through the following two tracks. Xtal sounds like a dance track played at high volume…from four blocks away. We Are the Music Makers strategically drops a vocal sample from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to anchor this ambling and winding track.

Xtal – 4:57

We Are The Music Makers – 7:43

He would also release an EP called Xylem Tube a little later in the year, but it was much more overtly party-friendly if you like spooOOOooky stuff.

Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994)
James decided to follow-up his highly successful and influential dance album with…an actual ambient album this time. A 150-160-minute double album. Yes, it was actually ambient, with the percussion much more muted on tracks or nonexistent. Some of the tracks were quite pretty and melodic, while others had a slightly creepier vibe. You can hear a bit of both in these tracks.

Cliffs – 7:27

Parallel Stripes – 7:55

…I Care Because You Do (1995)
This album was, in general, a step away from his ambient works and more towards the sound from some of his other monikers, though more polished production-wise. While it is still liked and admired, some consider this album to be more of a transition between his earlier works and his next two albums. The tracks have a much more…intimate feel than many of the tracks on his previous major releases, which had a kind of ethereal and faraway sound. Ventolin replaces any ambience with a high-pitched whine along with percussion that sounds like it is being thrown in a blender. Alberto Balsalm is more relaxed, almost natural-sounding.

Ventolin – 4:32

Alberto Balsalm – 5:11

Richard D. James Album (1996)
Thus began the new era in Aphex Twin. Though he kept most of the synth sounds that had used since the beginning, his focus on percussion took a different turn, building upon the sound that he had started on AFX’s Hangable Auto Bulb EPs the previous year. A lot of the drums sound like he smashed a Roland drum machine against another Roland drum machine. Sometimes, they are piercing and high pitched like a toy. Sometimes they sound like drum and bass played 50% faster. While some electronic acts at the time went with big drums, James went with drums small enough to prod your eardrums. Less bedroom electronica, more gremlin in your bed electronica. For sure, not all of the tracks had this, but it is probably the thing that most people will remember upon first listen. The album was fast, manic, and short compared to what came before and what would come after, so certain editions added the B-sides from one of the singles to stretch the album to…still not even 44 minutes.

To Cure a Weakling Child – 4:02

Girl/Boy Song – 4:53

Sidenote: This was the first Aphex Twin album that I heard, in 2001. Granted, I had heard of him as far back as 1996, but 2001 was my first proper introduction. I thought that it was the goofiest thing ever at first, but I quickly grew to like it, at least in time for when his next album came out. Sure, slow it down and loop certain sections and it sounds like some stuff on the radio now, but it was nothing like anything I had heard back then.

Come to Daddy (1997)
And here we reach one of the two tracks that everyone knows. Come to Daddywas supposedly a joke track to mock The Prodigy…or Death Metal…or Industrial Music…actually, I don’t know. In any case, the drumming is fairly similar to what was in the Richard D. James Album; if he really wanted to do something similar to The Prodigy or death metal, he could have maybe tried for some meatier percussion instead of that high-pitched pierce. It is melodically much simpler than most Aphex Twin tracks. Aside from the occasional noises, there is not much else going on. That, along with the fact none of the other tracks on the EP had the same aggressive and distorted buzz sound, does make this track seem like a one-off. Supposedly, James, was perplexed that the track became so popular in comparison to his other stuff. Supposedly. Actually, I don’t know why this was an EP, while the Richard D. James Album was an album, since they were pretty much the same length if one takes away the bonus tracks from the latter. Oh well…

Come to Daddy – 5:50

Nice video, eh?

Windowlicker (1999)
And here we are at his other famous track…well…soundtrack to the famous video. Look, he is not that really ugly, is he? He just likes to make creepy faces. When asked whether the video was racist, James denied it, saying that it was sexist, not racist…something about the inherent narcissism of something or other. He could have been joking. Anyways, the track is an ever-so- slightly nauseating dance track Fun fact: the EP version includes another minute of music that was cut from the video, perhaps to make more room for the introduction. It is cut from around the time of the bottle getting popped. Personally, I kind of like this shortened version, as it allows for a better transition between the breakdown and the climax of the track, while the cut section is basically the same as what came before.

Windowlicker – 10:34

Drukqs (2001)
How lucky was I to become a fan of Aphex Twin just in time for this album. Since the previous album wasn’t even 45 minutes long (and wasn’t even 33 without the bonus tracks), this one was 100 minutes long. To an extent, it was not much of a step beyond Richard D. James Album, but it tended to double down on the complexity, both in terms of melody and percussion, though the drums had a more standard drum and bass/jungle/electro sound than the piercing high pitches of the previous album. He also was even more averse towards auto-pilot repetition than he even was previously. You can tell from the first track here, which was featured (and slightly edited) in Children of Men. It takes a rather simple melody and kind winds the track around and around it before eventually abandoning it for another melody. There was one major shift in this album. A whole bunch of tracks were just James at a piano. Not an electric keyboard; a piano. Sometimes he would play a little ditty. Sometimes he would place things inside the piano to make it sound funny…or really creepy in one instance. But then there is Nanou2, which closes out the album. It is just him playing chords and single notes…slowly…without gimmicks…and it is beautiful. Drukqs may have been 2/3 as long without all of these piano tracks, but I would not have it any other way.

Omgyjya-Switch7 – 4:52

Nanou2 – 3:24

Rubber Johnny (2005)
While James did release a bunch of Analord EPs this year, I am just going to post something that he did with occasional collaborator Chris Cunningham.

Rubber Johnny – 6:00

Yeah.

Syro (2014)
For those unfamiliar with the other monikers that James uses, it may seem like he took a long sabbatical. In any case, though, he returned as Aphex Twin in 2014 with Syro. It is less a step in any direction and more a culmination of what he has done before, with little bit of funk here and a little bit of pop there and a bit of…erm…Retro Wave? You can practically hear the throwback sound in the second track. It is also little more relaxed and mid-tempo than his previous albums, and wholly unconcerned whether it sounds like anything on the radio or not. That said, the tendency to switch up melodies is still there. Nothing groundbreaking, but it didn’t have to be.

XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix) – 10:31

syro u473t8+e [141.98] (piezoluminescence mix) – 6:32

Cheetah (2016)
After a huge dump of over 200 tracks by Richard D. James from random eras onto a user18081971 Soundcloud page (among other pages) that was eventually cleared, he officially released some of the newer tracks under the Cheetah EP. The bloop-heavy CIRKLON3 [ Колхозная mix ] was the single. Interesting to note that the official video was not made by Cunningham this time, but by a kid from Dublin, who had been making unofficial music videos to Aphex Twin tracks for a while before James noticed him.

CIRKLON3 [ Колхозная mix ] – 8:13