Day Thirty-Seven: The Chemical Brothers – Brotherhood

Virgin Records ■ 5099923481817
Freestyle Dust ■ XDUST9LP

Released September 2, 2008
Produced by The Chemical Brothers

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Galvanize
  2. Hey Boy Hey Girl
  3. Block Rockin’ Beats
  4. Do It Again
  1. Believe
  2. Star Guitar
  3. Let Forever Be
  4. Leave Home
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Keep My Composure
  2. Saturate
  3. Out of Control
  1. Midnight Madness
  2. The Golden Path
  3. Setting Sun
  4. Chemical Beats
I believe I have managed, at this point, to cover my reluctance regarding compilations, so I’ll let that pass. Part of that is because, more importantly, I’d never listened to the Chemical Brothers (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons) before this. In fact, I slit the shrinkwrap just today to listen to this. I respected groups and artists like the Chemical Brothers or the Crystal Method or Daft Punk from afar, but was generally reluctant to touch on the intentionally repetitive segment of electronic music (also touched on briefly, this time with the Caustic Window compilation). I didn’t understand it, really, and associated it strongly with actually going and seeing electronic artists perform, which I’d never done. Having actually done it now (to see French synthpop artist David Grellier, aka College), I don’t know if the whole process makes sense to me personally. I enjoyed it, but man was that a confused audience. No one was sure how to clap or respond in general.

In any case, I developed my love for the more frenetic and bizarre segment of modern electronic music (generally speaking, “EDM”, or “electronic dance music” to differentiate from the electronic music of prior decades) via people like Richard D. James instead, who tend to not have ultra-danceable beats at all. My brief exposure to someone’s taste in more house/trance/electro style via the suggested viewing of the intensely “suggestive” (if you can even pretend to call those “suggestions”) video for Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction”, as well as a night’s worth of trance and house played over the only LAN party I ever attended. I recognized the appreciation in the person playing it, but felt it wearing thin as the night went on–maybe justifiably, as I couldn’t tell you whose music it was, and it might have failed as a representation. I also dabbled for only a moment with the “Hard House” mix of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, which struck me (and the ubiquitous John) as absurd and ridiculous. Those associations tended to keep me away for some time.

I picked up this compilation (a collection of Chemical Brothers singles, as the sticker on it notes) while I was still with Borders, during the time at which the brief, tiny test market for vinyl was ended and the remains were expunged via clearance, alongside a large percentage of standing multimedia that also could not be returned to the source for credit. It was severely clearanced (one of two LPs I picked up at this time, the other will horrify strangers, and cause eye-rolls from people who know me, I suspect), so I decided I’d go ahead and pick it up. I can’t recall now, but I may have decided it would be worth it in case it went up in value, but more likely decided it was a decent deal and thus a good way to suddenly break into listening to something I didn’t normally–that was the beginning of my most experimental phase, musically speaking.

Because I had nothing to associate it with or to otherwise push me into opening it, it sat aside for the last three or four years, untouched. That makes it, like BK-One’s Rádio do Canibal, part of what I get out of this blog–reason to listen to the untouched and nearly-untouched records I own.

Obviously, all of this is building toward an understanding of where I’m coming from for this particular release: ignorance. While I always try to approach new music with an open ear and an open mind, the balance of knowledge behind it and the lack of familiarity or touchstones can make it an awkward thing to write about. It’s worth noting (in my ever trivially-oriented pedantic way) that these are mostly radio or single edits where those exist: slightly chopped down versions of songs designed to play better on radio or in other free-flying, out-of-context areas.

They are packed on these two LPs alongside a booklet that has modified, screen-printed and generally monochromatic versions of the original (already minimally coloured and “simplistic” in most cases) single art the songs were drawn from, as well as a 12×12″ screenprint-style flat. A nice little package, that feels a lot better than it looks from the outside as a non-gatefold 2×12″.

“Galvanized” immediately called to mind, for me, the sounds of Euphrates-style production–Euphrates being a relatively obscure hip-hop group of Iraqi ancestry. There’s a Middle Eastern style string sample (listed as being from Najat Aatabou’s “Just Tell Me the Truth”) that is most prominent in all of it, the production on it starkly contrasted with familiar Western production styles. Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest (who the otherwise unfamiliar may recall from the Black Keys/Hip-Hop  project Blakroc I covered earlier) features as a vocalist for the track, which uses both that broad, intense midrange of the Aatabou sample and rhythmic, unified bass and drum pounding to give a sense of drama to the track.

Thudding drum leads into a vocal sample from “The Roof is on Fire” by Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three, which has the ever-present sense of pumping up that samples like this tend to carry: “Hey girls, B-boys, superstar DJs, here we go!” that gives the impression that it’s actually there to announce the song itself is about to take off. There’s not a sudden lift off, especially because the sample is repeated throughout; instead, the song is trance-like (if not technically in genre terms, at least in auditory sense), with a focus on looped synths of distinctly electronic nature.

The intensely funky bass sample (of indeterminate origin, though various claims exist) is the focal point of “Block Rockin’ Beats”, with the Schoolly D sample (“Back with another one of those block rockin’ beats”) placed a bit above and away from the track, more like an announcement from someone introducing the Brothers than coming from an involved performer. Sampled drums (as opposed to electronically produced ones) give the song an overall more organic feel, though the intrusion of warping synths and siren-like scratch-style noises keeps anyone from mistaking it for anything but what it is.

While I found the previous recordings appreciable but outside my personal expanse, “Do It Again” changed that significantly: the sequenced low-end melody, is incredibly infectious, and is kept from wearing out its welcome with the surrounding squeaking rhythm, “Let’s turn this thing electric” sample, and vocals of Ali Love (“Oh my god what have I done/All I wanted was a little fun/Got a brain like bubblegum/Blowin’ up my cranium”). The fact that Love’s lines match that awesome bass sequence yet are rendered at the higher end of his range makes them that much more enjoyable. The breaks for thumping bass, sustained synths and normally ranged vocals from Love are quite nice breaks, taking the clustered sound of the prior segments and letting it breathe for a moment.

Kele Okereke of Bloc Party gets to do vocals on “Believe”, which was most exciting of all guests (barring one whose appearance is amusing in the context of this compilation). Distinctly dancey with its full four-on-the-floor beat, the addition of a vaguely distorted wash of low melody and intermittent siren-like noises encourages a rather oppressive atmosphere that’s relieved somewhat by the Bloc Party-esque post-punk-y guitars and Kele’s actual voice (that’s not his guitar, though, so far as I can tell). After a rubbery “solo” of the electronic variety, the song veritably explodes, but finds itself calming back down to the constraints of the low end after a few bars. The high, pounding jitter of that “solo” is delightful, though.

The first track to avoid the trap of lower pitches, “Star Guitar” is sparkling and shiny at open, and is slowly phased through more smooth and comforting tones, that carry their way through the song, moving with gentle curves and slopes behind an expectedly strong, dance-y beat, though the moments those worming tones phase into the forefront are backed by a lighter version of the beat that adds a certain ambience (not ambiance) to those moments and makes them incredibly pleasant, though the clacking that speeds to a blur after them is quite nice in a different way.

Bringing back the sampled drumming and a more organic, live-sounding bass, “Let Forever Be” was the song that sounded most familiar to me. Perhaps because of Oasis’s Noel Gallagher singing the vocals (not sampled, as he was involved in the song’s creation). “How does it feel” he asks of various possibilities, with a thoroughly rock (and great) drum sample beneath it, and the warm phasing of 60s production worked into it.

“Leave Home” is one of the earliest tracks on the album, and is built heavily on rock instrumentation, even as it opens with only an echoing sample and a relaxed sort of alarm. Fuzzed-up wah-wah guitar samples and intense basslines are then moved in, a syncopated drum beat drops in and, in large part, takes over. By far, as the actual beats go, one of the best on this album. The bass (also a bit fuzzed) rolls over the top of the drums, but the clever construction of the drums takes the cake, by far. Some of the tracks give the feeling that they should have (or maybe even need) visual backing to complete them, but “Leave Home” is very complete by itself, despite relying only on very ordinary instrumental samples–or at least very samples of very ordinary instruments.

Leaping from that early track (“Leave Home” is from their debut album) straight to a track new for this compilation, “Keep Composure” features rapper Spank Rock. It’s one of the filthiest–musically, not lyrically–tracks on the album, everything distorted and buried down at the bottom, roiling and burbling through a fuzzy juggernaut hum that zips upward every other beat. Binary electronic oscillations–the kind one gets from completing electronic circuits to make a simple noise–flutter upward through Spank Rock’s verses, as the high-pitched beeps of a pinched woodwind sample (similar to the beep of early answering machines signaling message recording) are the only major accent on the bassier portions though. As with many tracks of this kind of “sleazy” feeling, this is a fun listen and just feels good.

Another of the scattered songs that aren’t overtly heavy or hard, “Saturate” originates in a very nice near-stuttering melody that sounds like it’s being jammed through a lo-fi electronic speaker, though it’s replaced by a warbling, lower version of itself, before both are pushed down into the muck as a fuzzed up version that loses the halts for smoother transitions. The melody is repeated over this, then, by a variety of new sounds that build on top of each other to an apex–which suddenly drops off to only the warbling low-end version. The fuzzed up bit has a lovely clicking secondary rhythm that is just the perfect touch to what would otherwise be again in the internal-organ-rearranging bass-defined kind of track we’ve heard earlier. As this harder range of tracks goes, this is definitely one of the best on here.

I mentioned an amusing vocal guest who outstrips Kele in cool, and that is Bernard Sumner–that a man from New Order, who recorded the much more iconic album Brotherhood appears on this compilation is just entertaining in and of itself. Sumner is also joined by Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie at moments. It’s a clever match, as the beat is intense and absurdly uptempo for the type of vocals either of these men deal in. Sumner’s voice in particular half-ignores the beat, or seems to, because it moves at no more than a quarter of the same speed. When he begins repeating “We’re out of control/Out of control…” it’s like a hypnotic breakdown, almost, as if he can’t escape that thought so long as they’re running through this chorus. The second time through, the electronic portion of the track takes over, his repetitions slowing, but the music beginning to suggest guitars and a much brighter tone, but one that is suddenly chopped into a speeding bassline that carries Sumner off into electronic splintered scatter.

“Midnight Madness” actually uses an electronically filtered set of modulated vocal samples (think Transformers, a bit) as it works itself into a frenzy, before the beat actually drops, a bass melody catchy and thumping, but overlaid with a squall of distortion that rides over it like a cloudy sky. High-pitched squeals move into place a rather tightly played guitar-esque melody. The distortion follows it, though, with those squeals from before forming a tightly patterned high-pitched rhythm that expands itself into a return of the “midnight madness” vocal sample, after which the song breaks down into a burbling soup of sounds. Another of the most body-moving feels.

The actual sounds of “The Golden Path” are warmer and more comfortable than a lot of the rest: rounded corners aren’t offset by distortion, fuzzing, or deep bass. Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips take on vocal duties, and it ends up sounding a lot more like an electronically-infused dance-punk, though the flute sample is terribly peculiar in this context. It ends up more like a story told over a backing than vocals built into the song–as the samples most explicitly are, but many of the “live” vocals also amount to. A shining upward-trending sequence as the song adds a sort of electronic chorale of “Aahs” moves the song in an overall upward direction throughout, the harmonized vocals of Coyne and Drozd oddly recalling many of the vocals of Bernard Sumner, though I would imagine that is coincidence–dance-inflected New Order notwithstanding (and possibly suggesting I’m being a bit thick-headed to call this coincidence).

Noel Gallagher returns in “Setting Sun”, which is a return to the breakbeat style exhibited earlier, the way his vocals hover into existence and are surrounded by a buzzing not unlike swarmed insects gives a sort of benign menace to the song: like a movie’s satanic plotline you take more as fun than terrifying. The shrieking siren-like sounds that announce the song and some of its breaks pierce in a way that avoids annoyance or discomfort while not failing to stand out noticeably. It feels more, as a beat, like something you would hear in and amongst people dancing in primal fashion, devoid of the self-conscious and free in movement.
The compilation closes with “Chemical Beats”, the song that actually lead to their name (as the original Dust Brothers were not big on Simons and Rowlands using their name after they actually started touring). As with prior early song “Leave Home”, “Beats” is less obviously electronic in manufacture: the central sound is electronic, but has the rough edges of many earlier electronic noises. There are drum machine drums this time, which even pull that oh-so-favourite move of speeding to a rising blur that holds the same place as bass drops in modern dubstep or breakdowns in the metallic veins of the past few decades’ approach to hardcore (the kind that doesn’t seem to relate to hardcore punk at all)–a moment to really catch an audience and bring their hearts to their throats before release.
As with my periodic forays into Daft Punk after their work on the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, I don’t find myself dismissive of these branches of electronic dance music, but I also don’t find myself completely engaged with them. I often get the feeling that casual listening is inappropriate for these things, that the repetitions cause them to function better in a context where actions are guided by the sounds heard, where the song can be felt and “displayed”, so to speak. Perhaps, though, I’m just of the wrong mind, musically, to really get this (I do actually enjoy it, largely, but a lot of it at once remains semi-exhausting for me). If anyone out there in the world has suggestions on how to grasp this more thoroughly, or to understand the development of it, I certainly welcome it. Until then, I shall plow away as I feel the urge, attempting to understand it exclusively on my own terms.
  • Next Up: The Church – Untitled #23

Day Thirty-Six: Caustic Window – Compilation

Rephlex Records ■ CAT009LP
Released June 1, 1998
(EP release dates below)
Produced by Richard D. James

Let’s just get this out of the way up front: I’m cheating. While the credited artist for this release is “Caustic Window”, that is, in fact, one of the (many) pseudonyms of one Richard D. James, whose most famous monikers are AFX and, of course, The Aphex Twin. If you’ve been reading here a while, or if you just click that link, you’ll see that this is not the first of his releases for me to cover here. However, because I feel it’s legitimate to treat this as a “C” release (alphabetically speaking), it avoids the issue of clustering multiple days around a single artist and allows me to cover more of my collection while not (strictly) violating the alphabet. It’s not the only time this will occur, but this is the time they’ll come closest together (the other I can think of off the top of my head is Leon Russell, who will obviously appear much later, but who released two albums with Marc Benno, at least the first of which was credited originally to The Asylum Choir).

In any case, this is a compilation of the 3 EPs James released as Caustic Window, which were put out by the label he co-founded, Rephlex. The original releases of each EP were actually a bit larger, some tracks being shaved off with the CD release of this as Compilation as well as the original vinyl issue of it as a 3xLP in three conjoined clear plastic sleeves. Each EP loses one track in the process, those being: “Popcorn” (a version of the Gershon Kingsley track made famous by Hot Butter) from Joyrex J4, an untitled track from Joyrex J5 typically nicknamed “R2-D2”, and “H.M.N.E.” (“Humanoid Must Not Escape”) from Joyrex J9i.

Despite the compilation’s release date above, the EPs were released much earlier, and I’ve included those release dates below each EP’s title.

Joyrex J4

Originally released July, 1992
(Originally CAT004)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Joyrex J4
  2. AFX II
  3. Cordialotron
  1. Italic Eyeball
  2. Pigeon Street

The title track from Joyrex J4 is built from the sound of a wobbling piece of cardstock (unlikely this is actually what was used, but it tells you what it sounds like), but quickly eschews this by turning into the acid house that makes up all of these EPs. The beat is pounding and rapid, not necessarily designed for actual dancing (allegedly, James created his early track “Digeridoo” and its 140bpm beat to wear dancers out at DJ gigs). Layered into the beat are more wobbling–though the later instances are more electronic, an angular rise-and-fall melody, a distant, phasing buzz and a difficult to describe sound that skips as if being halted from high speeds.

“AFX II” (while there are some instances in which James obscures his identity, to the point that speculation still marks releases from that artist insofar as who it actually is, often he makes no attempt to hide it, and does so only as a matter of distinguishing styles and labels they are released on) is one of the hardest beats in the set, sounding as if it’s a second generation recording, and maybe, just maybe, built on ambient sampling of some banal piece of machinery. It’s a short track, but an appreciably aggressive one.
“Cordialotron” is one of the tracks that most recalls his only-slightly-earlier work on things like Selected Ambient Works 85-92. It’s not a very hard beat, though it’s definitely strong enough to fit in its place in these releases. It’s strongly melodic, via its use of a looped melody that emulates a keyboard, and a warping sort of “lead” that rides over it. If you liked SAW8-92, this will feel way more familiar and comfortable, with the production approach also resembling that, with that echoing spaciousness and a minimal drum section (for this release, anyway).
The haunting (reversed) Julie Andrews (!) sample that opens “Italic Eyeball” implies we’re in for more ambient techno, and doesn’t really let down. It’s still very strong on rhythm, even as compared to “Cordialotron”, but it the woodwind-esque ethereal melody has a semi-central role, and the percussive section does actually deal in varying pitches, even using a bass-like loop to help glue the track together.
“Pigeon Street” is a wonderfully cheerful slice of fun, at only 0:23 running time, sounding as if it might have been taken from a children’s program from the late 70s or the 80s, cheerful and melodic, using plunking melody for rhythm, and “nasal”  bounces for the “lead” melody. Unsurprisingly, there was a children’s program on the BBC in ’81, that actually did use a partly synthesized theme song (it doesn’t sound at all alike though, especially as it is primarily an actual acoustically played theme).

Joyrex J5

Originally released July, 1992
(Originally CAT005)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Astroblaster
  2. On the Romance Tip
  1. Joyrex J5

Unsurprisingly, “Astroblaster” returns us to the more hardcore side of James’ Caustic Windows material, pulling out a truly stomping beat, and keeping its melodic variations somewhat abrasive and metallic, as many of the sounds are on these EPs. A harsh buzzing hum is the primary melodic “instrument”, one that in some ways hints at the sounds that would work their way into his less repetitive (ie, not acid house) releases in the coming years. Hints of the sounds of “On” can actually be heard here, though used in entirely different ways.

“On the Romance Tip”, at open, almost sounds as though it could turn out to be truly ambient: the opening segment wouldn’t have been out of place on Selected Ambient Works, Volume II, but an actual percussive track does worm its way in after a few measures, placing it more in the vein of the original Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and its “ambient techno” designation. As such, this is still the kind of track most people will find more pleasant and more palatable. The sustained notes that make the melody are cold, distant and expansive, but quite pretty. The fidgety secondary rhythm track keeps it all moving and from being too somber, too. It actually ends with the sounds you’d expect more from the earliest electronic artists, who recorded in the early 70s, sort of like really badly synthesized strings–a sound I happen to enjoy, actually.
Because the emphasis of these EPs is on primarily acid house tracks, the title track for Joyrex J5 ends this version of the EP (it does end the original version as well) on that note. It is a less harsh track than “Astroblaster”, though, even if it is the longest track in the entire series. The beat is rapid and not overly focused on bass, which keeps the track centered more in the midrange and helps its comfort level for listeners a lot (barring those who are really big on the harsh sounds, anyway). The completely unrelated rhythm and melody that comes in about a third of the way through is not an unusual technique at this point for James, and the way it comes in and ignores everything else, just hovering in the background with a sense of mysticism is part of what tends to make his work better for sitting and listening, or listening more than just feeling in a rave-y context (that’s why he suggested that his work be called “Braindance”–which appears on the only liner notes for this album, apparently actually trademarked–instead of the pretentious and snobby “intelligent dance music”). Oddly, that melody, despite its completely disjointed placement, manages to make the song quite pleasant indeed, even as the sped-up-saw sound of the primary hook cuts at your ear.

Joyrex J9

Originally released September, 1993 (J9i); December, 1993 (J9ii)
(Originally CAT009i and CAT009ii)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Fantasia
  2. Clayhill Dub
  1. The Garden of Linmiri
  2. We Are the Music Makers [Hardcore Mix]

If you don’t like the harsh noises, “Fantasia”, at least its opening, are not going to be your friend. Something like a machine starting up, or failing, or a locked groove of the same, it drops quickly both in pitch and even existence for the squeaking alarm-like centrepiece of the song, which is backed by a pounding, bass-heavy rhythm track, and a jagged, distorted lead “melodic” line. That line is aggressive, but actually quite cool. It’s actually hard for me to really say “harsh” here except in comparative terms. This shouldn’t really be “ear-bleed” kinds of harsh at all, just not something that makes you sigh contentedly. Of course, amusingly, a few minutes in (another of the longer tracks here), we hear a sample from a (purported) porn film–“Oooh, ooh!” from a female voice, which is eventually given a moment in isolation to play fully: “Oooh, ooh! That’s great, yeah!” says an, ah, excited female voice. While James has done this kind of thing before (and would again later), it doesn’t seem at all like it’s really “connecting” to porn or making the track actually sleazy: instead, it feels like James is wryly referencing the quality of his music (which he would also later do without the orgasmic association, via tracks like (despite what the title might imply to you) “Cock/Ver10”. 

“Clayhill Dub” is likely so named because it is focused less on bass kicks than it is on a bassy melodic line, which throbs throughout and keeps the song centered entirely around the low end. Occasional splashes of metallic clank and rattle, echoing or just striking momentarily wander in here and there, but largely it’s just that bassy line.
“The Garden of Linmiri” uses an alarm-like noise, not unlike “Fantasia”, but more like hearing a large factory’s alarm from outside, with the kind of distortion that comes from an intentionally ridiculously loud noise as muffled by the walls of a building. Squeaky, high-pitched rhythms (a favoured sound for James in faster tracks), is the trade-in for that alarm sound’s patient repetitions, as well as another of the full-on, hard beats (think “Astroblaster” above), with four-on-the-floor, but done with the drop of a boulder on concrete. The strike of grinding on metal alternates beats, while it all eventually mutates into an aggressive, clatter of pounding on thin metal trays in a rather catchy and appealing way.
Making it only appropriate that these are the two James releases I’m going to cover, the compilation closes with the “Hardcore Mix” of “We Are the Music Makers”, from SAW85-92. Let’s be honest: while it may have been James’s sense of humour to tell us one of his big pop star remixes was an unrelated track he had laying around, passed on because he was caught offguard by the deadline (the man has also said he checks our records by “smelling the grooves”, and that he used a goat to help create Drukqs, and that it was most helpful after he got it a “hoof mod”), this would not be surprising as an approach for him. The only connection here is that of Gene Wilder’s sampled voice, speaking that same line: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dreams…” The beat itself is another hard one, four-on-the-floor accented with a secondary beat between the third and fourth. The focal point is a rhythmic brushing sound, as of stiff bristles taken back and forth across a floor, but clipped free of any higher pitches. A yawning, distorted buzz falls repeatedly in the background, keeping the pace of the track not quite so fast as the fully rhythmic portions would imply.
I’m normally not one for house or trance or any of the more repetitive strains of electronic music, simply because it seems like the repetition is intended to maintain danceability–a sound that can be appealing for its consistency, but that, as a focal point, doesn’t build for active listening unless done with that in mind (or because the artist in question likes to do so anyway). James’s Caustic Window material isn’t an exception to the style, really, but it does keep things interesting, as James may DJ for shows (and did then, too), but he’s also made it clear that music seems to be more of a listening interest to him than a dancing one. I think, then, that this reflects in how he puts even house-based tracks together. It is more repetitive, to be sure, and is not my favourite of his material, but that’s honestly not saying much when this is the artist in question. It is a bit odd that my collection of his work on vinyl is exclusively his analogue-produced material (this, SAW85-92, Analogue Bubblebath 3, and the Analord series of releases he did in 2005 on a return to that kind of equipment from his computer-based work in the preceding decade or so). Still, his work in electronics (I think we can believe that one, as well as his claims to modifying the equipment himself)  makes the material unique within the framework of the genres and styles the material falls into.
Just don’t go into this expecting free, easy, happy kinds of stuff. There are better releases from him for that kind of thing–but getting this kind of hard, harsh, rough stuff from him, this is probably the top.
  • Next Up: Chemical Brothers – Brotherhood

Day Fourteen: Autechre – Gantz_Graf

Warp Records ■ WAP 256
Released: August 6, 2002

Produced by Autechre (Sean Booth and Rob Brown)

Side a:

  1. Gantz Graf
  2. Dial.
Side e:

  1. Cap.IV

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.

Autechre, however, I’ve always seen as somewhat nebulous: the immediate feeling I always get from them is that of the most inhuman sound. This doesn’t seem to be an unfair feeling–the first video Chris Cunningham directed was for the band (their song “Second Bad Vilbel”, from the Anvil Vapre EP) and the most abstract one he has released in a career that became defined by his Aphex Twin videos (which contain characters, plots, and human figures). The video released for “Gantz Graf” is also incredibly abstract and, like much of their cover art, is focused on geometry and straight lines. Only Oversteps from 2010 has cover art with any sense of chaos–but it’s still controlled: a painted circle with messy outline, but a pretty accurate circle in spite of that method. The fact that they’ve made releases like LP5 and Tri Repetae only makes things worse: the actual external art for the latter is devoid of any markings whatsoever once unwrapped, and the former only says “autechre” and “ae” on it, both embossed into the packaging itself. Indeed, LP5‘s CD formatting has no indicators at all of which side is which, though the LP does have track listings. Even Amber, the only release with a natural photographic cover, chooses an unblemished rock formation in Turkey, one that still hints at pre-conceived, naturally defined elements.
This is a bit of a contradiction, I realize. Machinery and natural lines are somewhat inappropriate to group: one is decided by millennia of reactions to the elements, one is manufactured by man-made hands. But there’s still something in common with both: neither resembles mankind. Even if a human engineers, designs, manufactures and assembles a machine, the end result is unlike man, while nature’s inorganic elements–another shared feature–don’t resemble the curves, flexibility, and softness of humanity. This always seems appropriate in light of their work. While it is definitively designed by human hands, it is designed in a fashion that leaves it more in mind of manufacture than impulse, even as it still maintains the sense of design and intention.
Gantz Graf is not, by any means, an exception to this. Many of their albums edge more toward the Aphex or µ-Ziq side of electronic music, with some drifting toward ambient, some toward the melodic and catchy side of things and tempos varying, but more accessible elements tend to be a commonality. Gantz Graf is the kind of work people call “challenging” or “experimental” or “difficult”, and with reason. The title track opens the EP with controlled chaos: it reminds me, in some ways, of some of the “jokes” of RDJ (like aka “Formula”/”Equation” or “Bonus High Frequency Sounds”) but being less abrasively constructed. It sounds as if the song can’t find its sound or footing as it starts, with various contrasting mechanical sounds bouncing off each other only to come back together for brief moments, no clear tempo established, but a clear sense of pattern that prevents it from being simply random. It slowly morphs and mutates, as if being restricted or attempting to correct itself, spikes of sound splintering and jumping off it like sparks as it is wound and tightened back in on itself. It’s like the energy of a machine designed to move forward but held in place: it unthinkingly spins tires or works legs, expending great energy, but unable to actually move.

“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.

While Autechre can occasionally have warmer, softer, curvier inorganic sounds (on Amber and Quaristice, for example), this is a very angular and remote release. The video for “Gantz Graf” itself is definitive, indicative of the kind of inhuman sound that is signature, and also semi-impenetrable, even as you can recognize its perfect match to the beats and sounds of the track itself.
I do wish I had a bit more electronic on vinyl, and, indeed, that I had something by Autechre other than a single EP (as I’ve noted before, EPs are not my preference here, but it’s the only thing I have by Autechre at all). I’ve meant for ages to expand my knowledge of electronic music, but considering it can be assembled (even if poorly, as I’ve done myself a few times, though never been stupid or shameless enough to distribute) by anyone, technically, it makes it difficult to know who or where to go–and the sheer variety of subgenres, which I generally can’t tell apart, even if I try, most definitely doesn’t help either.
Still, this is a solid release, and, while “difficult”, never gives me the impression that it crosses into the realms of the kind of pretension and “experimentation” that I find, ahem, difficult to take seriously or as anything other than an attempt to “prove” intelligence or complexity. Autechre are often reckoned as the smarty-pants side of the “IDM/Braindance” stuff, and it doesn’t seem unfair, but maybe it just comes down to how difficult it is to find humanity in the sounds they construct, which sound more like a machine might have constructed them, even as the overarching sense is a clear awareness that it was two humans.
Next Up: Bad Brains – ?

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.”

Day Seven: Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92

 R&S Records ■ AMB LP 3922/AMB LP 3902

Released: November, 1992
Produced by Richard D. James

Side A:
Side B:
  1. Xtal
  2. Tha
  3. Pulsewidth
  1. Ageispolis
  2. i
  3. Green Calx
  4. Heliosphan
Side C:
Side D:
  1. We Are the Music Makers
  2. Schottkey 7th Path
  3. Ptolemy
  1. Hedphelym
  2. Delphium
  3. Actium

While high school was the time I began to really delve into music in general, it was also the time at which I began to seriously explore beyond that which I’d heard and was now beginning to identify. I had a brief period (as seemingly many in recent generations do) of clinging to music from the past as means to identify myself: bristling and holding people at bay by judging whether they were familiar with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd before anything else. Seemingly unlike modern generations in this state, my friends and I did not explicitly reject modern music as inherently inferior or devoid of quality. Indeed, the modern bands we listened to most in the midst of high school were played  happily on the radio, and some were just a few years back and were part of our more formative years and already carried a sense of personal nostalgia.

Toward the end of our time in that level of schooling, though, there was a much greater expansion of taste and awareness. I’d carried with me the quirks of They Might Be Giants (the first band I came to love, “Weird Al” Yankovic notwithstanding), while my best friend John carried in the sensibilities of mail order punk (introducing me to much of what I came to know about the genre). Our other friends, though, were exploring the then-modern underground and pulling up much of what would still be more accurately termed “indie rock.” I, however, found myself in an online community that had nothing to do with music, nor, by that time, much to do with anything at all. By chance and simple recommendation–endorsed by a friend in school–I began to experiment with music by the Aphex Twin. At that time, of course, “Come to Daddy” and The Richard D. James Album were the soup du jour of his music, but I operated primarily on, first, attempting to gather what I could find and then later attempting to find everything I possibly could. To this day, I maintain a digital library of 29 hours of music he released officially (and a hand full of things he didn’t exactly release at all).

In the midst of this time, I had my first taste of a modern record store. In my youth, I’d been in a few, but mostly carried along by my father as he dug through used CDs, with me looking for, let me be brutally honest, “Always” by Erasure, “Jam” by Michael Jackson, and early on acquiring my first rap CD: Creepin’ on ah Come Up by the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. I have no shame about any of these (I still have the last, and eventually acquired the first two–both very recently, as it happens), but the search was a very different thing in those days. No, in 2001, when I first saw Chapel Hill, I was reminded of my hometown (Columbia, MO) to a striking degree, and was awed when I wandered into CD Alley and Schoolkids for the first time. Vinyl was fetishized to an extent in my circle–that sense of the past lending it some authority, as well as the rather idiosyncratic analogue ear of my aforementioned best friend. So when I began to see the releases of the Aphex Twin on vinyl, it was an amazing thing to me. His music could not be readily found for about a hundred miles from where I went to high school, and vinyl was unheard of with one small exception I’m sure I will get into at a later date.

I saw Selected Ambient Works 85-92 placed up on display on the wall of Schoolkids that year, and desperately wanted it, but was thoroughly out of the ability to acquire it, carrying no money at the time and being cut off in my journey by late adoption of the cell phone utility. It was a pipe dream, even as I also saw copies of The Richard D. James Album and …I Care Because You Do, or even the US-released version of Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II on double CD, the album I had then fallen for.

Selected Ambient Works 95-92 (SAW85-92) was stark and clear: the stylized “A” in a circle that marked an Aphex release, with only grey text and no other clear indicators: the spine has no catalogue number or title, the back chops the cover in four and rearranges it, listing the tracks and the briefest of recording and label information. It was emblematic, even as it was not an album I’d yet grown familiar and comfortable with, because it made clear what it was, even more so than the near-rictus of his self-titled, later album.

I went home without it though, as I’ve never been one for shoplifting, and as I said, I had no way to purchase it. A few weeks later, though, a friend came to visit and surprised me by removing the LP from behind her back and handing it to me. It was the first record I was so clearly gifted, and not the last, but one of only a few. Records have remained rather unique and special gifts most of the time, as they tend to take some greater degree of effort to acquire.

There’s something interesting and half-amusing about the title of this album: the music is not ambient in the sense of Erik Satie’s “furniture music” or Brian Eno’s “Ambient” series, or even James’s own SAWII. This is “ambient techno,” which marries the kind of music I described above to the one element they most distinctly and definitively lack: beats. Now, plenty of it–especially that heavily influenced by Satie (who I know as an influence on James, as it happens)–even lacks distinct melodies, and those are also very present on SAW85-92. There are moments that approach something closer to what Eno and Satie composed: the final moments of “Xtal”, for instance. Warm waves of sound that don’t quite come together as melody, but still have enough of a feel to be more than just noise or simple sound.

“Xtal”, perhaps because of its placement as album opener, remains my favourite track from the album by far. It feels almost geometric: it begins with a somewhat fuzzy synthesized hi-hat rhythm which has gentle, humid-sounding pipes crossed over it, a thudding beat and then feminine non-verbal vocalizations, until a more complex and stuttered beat on a synthetic snare comes in to occupy another space. Each of these sounds feels like it holds a corner apart from the rest, but linked to create a complete shape. It sounds, as much of the album does, like it’s coming from an isolated but inviting and cool, misty canyon: filled with water and greenery, but echoing off rocky cliffs that emphasize the absence of other people.

“Tha” is less inviting and warm, but remains comfortable and inviting all the same: it’s the curves and softness of nature, but with all the alien, foreign elements that keep it something separate from the way most of us live, indeed, separate from even most of the nature-oriented folk, as if this all comes from a part of nature we don’t see many humans in.

“Xtal” and “Tha”, along with “Pulsewidth”, set the stage for an album that, for all that it is allegedly a compilation (the title implies that James wrote these songs at various times from the age of 14 [!] to 21), is very well designed with the “four corners” mindset in place–or at least, four of the corners that come from a double LP, as the endings of each side only really connote clearly to the ends of songs. In other words, each side feels distinct and isolated in part, though not so distinct that it peels away from the rest of the album and leaves it all weird and disjointed.

“Ageispolis,” “i” (only a brief and unusual one minute track, though perhaps the most strictly ambient, hinting strongly at the kind of tracks that would appear on SAWII), “Green Calx,” and “Heliosphan” marry the simpler works James created, like four remixes of the Pac-Man themes he released under the name “Power-Pill” the same year, or the first Analogue Bubblebath to the ambient sounds he worked into the majority of the album without abandoning the strong beats that set it apart from “actual” ambient music. “Green Calx” is a part of a sort of series, though, continued with “Blue Calx” two years later on SAWII and two years after that on The Richard D. James Album with “Yellow Calx”, though “Blue Calx” also appeared on a compilation prior and was credited to the pseudonym “Blue Calx.” Each song hasn’t got much to do with the others, resembling no less than the other material on the albums they appear on. Still, “Green Calx” carries the more 80s-electronic influence of the rest of Side B of SAW85-92.

Side C begins with “We Are the Music Makers”, which has the most obvious and distinct vocal sample on the entire album: Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka expressing that same sentiment–“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dreams.” While this is a familiar technique in a lot of music, or has been since sampling became a common technique, this particular side is perhaps the most unusual and somewhat experimental. “We Are the Music Makers” is somewhat standard in approach, based on a bit of a polyrhythm, with the bassline running a bit off from the drumbeat, but eventually worming in a higher pitched melody line with just a haze of sound around it until a simple pseudo-keyboard line plays off into the highest corners of the track. “Schottkey 7th Path”, though, is off in another realm, with a ratcheting beat under science fiction-y melody sounds, layered behind a mix of near industrial machinery sounds taken out of context. “Ptolemy” has perhaps the danciest beat of the album, but played under the sound of air forced through simple pipes for a sort of subdued calliope sound, which is eventually flattened out with a sort of digitized “squish” that finishes out the song, polluting what was an airy melody.

“Hedphelym”, “Actium”, and “Delphium” sound associated purely by name, but share in sound the feeling of being somewhere else, and particularly somewhere alien. “Hedphelym” is perhaps the most discordant track of the album, using the most house-ish thudding beat in all of it, but under sounds that would require extreme charity to refer to as “melodic” for the most part, though a slightly distorted one does appear–its time signature and notes are warped out of place as the song goes on. “Actium” carries the feel less of a desolate alien planet and more that of a region on our own planet as yet untouched by major technologies. It’s dense and tightly-packed more than much of the album, heavily layered as much of it is, but filled with more movement than any of the rest, each layer moving in varying directions as the beat keeps it from dragging for even a moment. “Delphium” uses the second most simple and recognizable electronic beat as a starting point, thudding out a simple one, two, three, four on repeat, as anticipative bass melody loops over it until a distant and slightly odd keyboard hook sits in the air above it on repeat. A midrange melody winds in and out to tie it all together.

And really, in the end, that’s the feeling of the album: James would later progress into more distinct and unusual subgenres of electronic music, becoming most known for his forays into drum and bass, breakbeat and jungle, but this album feels “woven.” Perhaps it reflects his ideas at the time strongly, or perhaps his ideas were constrained by technology (he used more analogue items at that time than his more recent compositions, which have typically been thoroughly computerized). He wouldn’t return to this kind of sound readily until the Analord series of 2005, with Analogue Bubblebath 3 serving as the last hints of this woven and steady sound he began with. The next year would see the release of the On EP that began his time at Warp Records under the name “Aphex Twin”–he had already released the EP (Quoth) under the name Polygon Window with that same label, but it was On that would change the game almost entirely for him–even if SAW85-92 remains an alleged “watershed”, defining moment and so on–it’s usually thought of less as a signature piece for him and more for the genre as a whole.

In the end: this is one of my most played records, without a doubt. Side A in particular has seen a fair number of plays and will no doubt see many more.

Copies are available at Discogs, though most are the remastered edition with altered cover art. The original editions start at prices a bit higher.

Next Up: Aspera Ad Astra – Peace