Happy 40th Birthday, Aphex Twin's Richard D. James!
Richard D. James, best known under the pseudonym Aphex Twin, said back in the early '90s, "if you lived to a hundred but you didn't sleep, it'd be like living to two hundred. Originally, it wasn't for more time to make music, I just thought sleep was a bit of a con."
If James has lived up to his youthful conjecture on sleep deprivation and the parallax of time, then he very well might feel like he has turned 80 today -- but presuming he has accepted the inevitable rhythms of the Gregorian calendar, then today he will be celebrating his 40th birthday.
While his earlier media image as an unbalanced raver who DJed with sandpaper discs, drove a military tank and hung out in his own submarine is something that has dissipated with age, his legacy as a prodigiously talented and sporadically prolific musician and composer has been enduring. Operating within the lineage of Stockhausen, Cage, Kraftwerk and a purveyor of Brian Eno's original notion of ambient as peripheral and evocative sound, here are some of the highlights from his career.
If the title of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is to be taken at face-value, James was writing game-changing modern ambient music at the age of 14. A hugely influential album on practically all electronic instrumental beat-oriented music that followed, almost twenty years later it is still regularly heralded as a watershed masterpiece. Picking one track feels slightly reductive, but "Pulsewidth" captures Aphex channeling human emotion through electronic soundscapes in a "hypnagogic" way probably before the current batch of chillwave artists were even born:
Following this release, Aphex's music noticeably branched out into gritty beatless texture, hyperactive drill 'n' bass, Acid House and minimalist piano pieces. Having already made contact with a new electronic music label called Warp Records, James adopted the alias of Polygon Window for his first full release for the label, 1993's Surfing on Sine Waves. A collection of angular percussive tracks, "Quoth" reveals a harder and darker sound. No melody, no synths, barely recognizable bass -- just frenzied metallic percussion and savage pounding rhythms. In typical Aphex / Warp fashion, this track was released as a single and deleted from their catalogue on the same day:
Aphex and James grew contiguously during the 1990s -- the label seemingly the perfect foil for James' multi-alias explorations of ambient, experimental techno and abrasive acid house. During this period, his prolific releases, enigmatic cult of personality poise and regular number of tracks that appeared in adverts, films and tv shows around the world all contributed to a gradual sense of intrigue. The horror jungle of 1997's "Come to Daddy" possibly came as a reaction to this. James has always described the song as a joke, a sarcastic foray into pop music -- either way it ended up peaking at #36 on the UK singles chart and has been covered by artists as varied as jazz trio the Bad Plus and math-metallers the Dillinger Escape Plan. Chris Cunninham's Kubrick-inspired video perfectly captures the Aphex aesthetic and looks surreally prophetic in light of the recent London riots:
The 1999 single "Windowlicker" has been voted as Warp Records' most popular song and received other, slightly more surprising plaudits at the time of its release. Upon hearing the track had narrowly beaten TLC to be voted as NME's Single of the Year (the Beastie Boys had won the year before, Eminem won the year later), he responded in typical laconic style, "hope everyone has a totally boring New Year's party, overdoses on everything and chokes on their own vomit on the bathroom floor, make sure you lie face down just before you pass out!" This is undoubtedly Aphex at his most accessible -- an almost effortless throwaway sleazy R&B infused modular electronic track.
James' 2001 double-album Drukqs came after a conscious break from releasing music after the success of "Windowlicker." The record was his first long-player in five years and also coincided with the apex of his media profile -- negotiating not only the comedy of being approached to collaborate / produce with everyone from Madonna to Slipknot, but also being viewed as the posterboy and iconoclast of IDM (a term he hated) by the music media. The album itself ranges from exquisite blue mood piano meditations reminiscent of Erik Satie to explosive micro-produced screeching electro-bass workouts. 'vordhosbn' is somewhere in between - wistfully dissonant and beautifully taut -- it seems to capture the complexity and tension of James' emotional duality.
Since Drukqs he has moved away from the album format, concentrating his musical efforts through his own label Rephlex and his Analord series -- a meticulously produced 11-part series of EPs with 42 total tracks. Rumors of a new Warp album remain and James recently stated he has 6 completed albums ready to go -- welcome news about an artist that tries to convey in his music enduring personal eccentricities and artistic endless conundrums.
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