While my love for the work of Aphex Twin is well-known enough that more than a few people remember checking him out solely on my recommendation, I can’t really pretend I know as much about electronic music as that kind of weight might indicate. Insofar as the more modern incarnations, I’ve stuck almost exclusively to about four artists, with smatterings of others occupying my collection over the years (2 Lone Swordsmen, Flunk, Lemon Jelly, Burial, Daft Punk, Boards of Canada, BT, Terminal Sound System, TRS-80) and haven’t ever been serious (or at least accurate) in claiming anything like knowledge. Now, that aside, when it comes to Aphex Twin (and AFX, Caustic Window, Polygon Window, and his billion other pseudonyms), Autechre, Squarepusher and µ-Ziq, I tend to have something to say. They each occupy overlapping but distinct corners of the “intelligent dance music” (though I’m inclined to agree with Mr. James that that name is stupid and pretentious–with no other takers, I shruggingly accept his nomenclature of “braindance”, as it also seems pretty accurate) and so I’ve followed each semi-consistently. RDJ in all his various identities occupies the greatest part of my collection (both physical and digital, and in physical both vinyl and CD), with Squarepusher coming in a close second, µ-Ziq at a strong third and Autechre at a semi-distant fourth.
Aphex’s work is the most intensely varied, as he has seemingly gotten bored with or distracted from various sounds–his interviews, despite being generally rather opaque and often obtuse, give an idea of the sort of collective identity of his work. When he talks about smelling the grooves of vinyl, or getting a “hoof mod” for the goat he uses to help compose and record, the idea that he’s taking the piss is not really difficult to grasp. But once in a while he’ll also be free and clear, as when he expressed his opinion of the “IDM” name, or when he made the mistake of giving his perfectly relaxed opinion of Radiohead.¹ Squarepusher, by contrast, has stayed a bit more in the background, and is almost defined by the live element of his sound: he’s an amazing bass player, and often layers his playing over the electronic sounds he puts together. µ-Ziq has the most accessible sound, treading into experimental territory far less often, and building around and relying on melodies more often than the rest.
“Dial.” follows and closes the first side (marked only by the “a” of their condensed logo) and is more easily followed. The glitch-y (in the sense of both the immediate understanding of “glitch” and the subgenre of electronic that orients itself around that kind of auditory glitch) beat is backed by a wild-eyed, constantly ascending semi-melody, as if the song is climbing stairs and appears to be reaching a top that only becomes the next flight. There’s only a mild dissonance, as the sounds chosen for the notes are half-flat and squashed into strange shapes. A vocal sample is distorted enough to be effectively unrecognizable, and this and other elements become the portions designed to move the song forward and create something new, as the beat and the “stairclimb” loop to propel it forward into those new spaces. Squeaks and bleeps, buzzes and hums float in and out, as if running up those same stairs at different speeds but finding their floors on occasion.
The second side (marked by the stylized “e” in the photo I included, which actually also has the vertical line of the “a“, but of course on the left side instead) consists entirely of one track: “Cap.IV”. By itself, it’s almost as long as the other two tracks, though it doesn’t lift the entire release to even a 20 minute running time. It shares the distorted variety of vocal samples that “Dial.” contained, though even more filtered and obscured (reminding me of the “Mashed potatoes? Why do you hate mashed potatoes?” sample from Aphex’s “Every Day”, and proving how limited my frame of reference is). It uses a beat based around a heavily chopped and higher-pitched hit, one that is occasionally blurred into a seeming stream of hits, while an actual melody–though ethereal, as always for Autechre–does occupy the background, between that vocal sample and the beat. The beat maintains its dominance though, with wiry energy and the feeling that it cannot sit still for more than a moment–if that. Eventually, the beat seems to feel it has not yet achieved total dominance and begins to blur and strike more and more often, overtaking all the rest of the track until it’s nothing but a blur of constant vibration and gyration overtaking everything else.
¹The oh-so-controversial statement was “I wouldn’t play with them since I don’t like them.” and inspired a legion of backlash from Radiohead fans, followed by a reactionary backlash from Aphex fans. It was all very stupid.
He did later elaborate with more inflammatory (but still not messianic, Final Arbitration-type comments):
“I don’t like them. I heard maybe five or six tracks and I thought they sounded really really cheesy.”
“Yeah, really obvious and cheesy. I mean I’m just comparing it to my favourite music and I think it’s terrible compared to that. But compared to all the shit boring R&B tracks it’s probably alright. Compared to those teen punk sort of bands or whatever they are supposed to be called, who think that they are really anarchic and stuff like that, they are probably amazing. If you’re only exposed to that kind of stuff and then Radiohead come along you will probably think that they are geniuses.”