Aphex Twin’s ‘Syro’: A Trip Into the Border Zone Between Music and Sound Art

There’s a meme doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment whereby instead of choosing your 15 favorite albums or ten songs that changed your life or whatever, you write a list of the sounds you most enjoy hearing. It’s a rather lovely idea, and I got to thinking about it this morning as I was listening to the new Aphex Twin record. Music has, of course, long since left the boundaries of the song behind — and, indeed, the whole idea of a neat verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-etc. structure is a modern invention anyway, because in the past songs were far more unruly beasts than they are now. But even so, Richard D. James is probably the most consistently fascinating modern explorer of the border zone between music and sound art.

It’s often been said that you either get Aphex Twin’s music or you don’t, but honestly, I’m not sure that anyone “gets” it besides the man himself — the arrangements are so intricate and complex, the sounds so strange and unexpected, that ascribing any sort of internal logic to it is nigh on impossible. But that’s beside the point, I think — because you’re not listening to songs, per se. You’re listening to collections of sounds, and sounds can be just as emotionally resonant as songs can.

In filling out the Facebook thing, I got to thinking about just how many sounds bring back strong emotions for me: the sound of distant surf in the summertime, the sound of rain on a tin roof in the winter, the way a cat purrs or cicadas buzz or a lover breathes in their sleep. These are all noises that have a specific memory or memories tied to them, but there are others that are more generally evocative: the constant hum of a big city, or a soothing rush of white noise, or a lone trumpeter over the buzz of the subway crowds.

It’s this sort of low-level emotional resonance that’s the best way to appreciate the sort of abstract music that James makes — or, at least it is for me, anyway. These aren’t songs that you find yourself humming on the way to work, or that stick in your head for long after you’ve heard them. Indeed, it’s hard to describe what any one track on Syro (or Selected Ambient Works, or Drukqs, or anything else in the Aphex Twin discography) sounds like. There’s the occasional memorable melody, like “Windowlicker,” or memorable sample, like “Come to Daddy” — but even those pieces act as much on a sort of subliminal level as they do on an immediate, visceral one.

The fascinating thing about the sounds on an Aphex Twin record, of course, is that you never really have any idea what you’re actually listening to. Sure, there are the basic elements of the track: the drums were either synthesized or sampled from somewhere, the bass is some sort of synth, and there are washes of arpeggiated electric piano (and even the occasional dose of Skrillex-y farty trance synths). But beyond that, there’s all manner of strange samples and microsamples, some of which you never hear more than once, some of which drift in and out of the margins of the mix, remaining always slightly beyond identification. In this respect, his work recalls, say, Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas albums — the sounds you’re listening to may or may not have originated in the real world, but they combine to make a world entirely of their own.

And, of course, different sounds mean different things to different people. An example I’ve always enjoyed is Orbital’s “Walk Now” — at about 2:00, the rest of the music drops away to leave only a strange, processed electronic beep. It repeats a few times at regular intervals, then accelerates. It’s eventually joined by the sound of a kick drum, and the rest of the track drops back into place. Unless you’ve ever lived in my home city of Melbourne, that beep is just a strange, abstract sound. If you have, though, it’s instantly recognizable: Orbital have sampled the sound of a pedestrian crossing!

None of this is to say that anything on Syro is particularly revolutionary. If you’ve enjoyed James’ work in the past, you’ll probably find the sounds here familiar and comforting — there’s his trademark skittering percussion, heavily processed vocal samples, and decidedly 303-ish bass sounds. Much of the album locks into one tempo, which remains constant and ultimately somewhat same-y, and some of the tracks are downright nice, suggesting that perhaps our hero has mellowed somewhat with advancing years. Closing track “Aisatsana,” in particular, is one of the prettiest pieces of piano music you’ll hear this year, its gentle melodies verging on the downright classical.

But it’s not all soothing — James’ strange, ever-shifting rhythms still sound at times like the music equivalent of a panic attack, and then there are weird atonal experiments like the short and disorienting “Fz pseudotimestretch+e+3” and the epic “XMAS_EVET10,” which are a strange and wonderful array of sounds familiar and outlandish.

Quite how any of these sounds fit together (and, for that matter, what on earth the titles mean) presumably only makes sense to one sinister bearded man in Cornwall. But if you stop trying to make sense of it and just whack on a good pair of headphones, close your eyes, and experience it, you might find that, as ever, James’ music has the power to evoke all sorts of emotions. Which, ultimately, is what music — and indeed, any sort of art — can set out to do.