Day Thirty-One: Burning Airlines – Identikit

Arctic Rodeo Recordings ■ ARR044

Released May 8, 2001¹
Recorded by John Agnello with Jake Mossman; J. Robbins and Burning airlines
Mixed by John Agnello with J. Robbins, Mike Harbin, and Peter Moffett
Mastered by Alan douches
¹This expanded vinyl released 11/16/2012

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Outside the Aviary
  2. Morricone Dancehall
  3. A Lexicon
  4. The Deluxe War Baby
  5. A Song with No Words
  6. All Sincerity
  7. The Surgeon’s House
  8. Everything Here Is New
  1. Paper Crowns
  2. Blind Trial
  3. Identikit
  4. Tastykake
  5. Earthbound
  6. Election-Night Special
  7. Dear Hilary
  8. Action
Track listing note: many of the tracks are shuffled from their listed order, but the above is the order in which they actually play. “The Deluxe War Baby” is shifted to its place above from being listed between “The Surgeon’s House” and “Everything Here Is New”. “Election-Night Special” is listed between “Identikit” and “Tastykake”. The lyrics are also printed in this written order, not the order in which they play.
Out of all the polls I’ve run, I had a feeling (much like I suspected March on Electric Children would be the least acknowledged entry so far) Burning Airlines would be the most “difficult” vote to squeeze out. I pushed pretty hard on the Boomtown Rats, but I sort of gave up with Burning Airlines. Most people I know are in the wrong music generation (regardless of their actual age) and/or scene to know Burning Airlines, and I know that is the one thing that really makes people reluctant to throw out a vote. I decided to get around this in a sneaky and vaguely ridiculous way: I actually asked J. Robbins (check those credits up top) and Peter Moffett if there was an album they’d prefer me to write on. Mr. Robbins’s been nothing but kind with my intermittent fawning and questions, and said very nice things about my writing on his previous band, Jawbox. On this he suggested I flip a coin to pick the album, and that he’d be happy I was writing about either, which I can understand and respect–there’s going to be plenty tied up in these for someone involved. I asked Mr. Moffett a bit more privately, and didn’t even catch the first notification that he’d actually answered. The response was just a single word: Identikit. It was a relief, in a way; a singular vote from another fan that wandered into my question to J. and voted for Mission: Control! which would have stuck me with another tie and, well, another coin toss, actually. I wanted to have something fresh and different to break this one up, though, and so Mr. Moffett gets a gracious thanks for taking the time to answer me and break the tie–even if it was before there was a tie!
As I mentioned, I wrote a lot about Jawbox on my last blog–or, at least, I wrote one really emphatic entry about them. A commenter (one of very few I ever saw!) suggested I check out J.’s other bands, and started with Burning Airlines (to be fair, they were in chronological order). Of course, in a weird way, it was actually Burning Airlines that inspired the basic level of interest anyway–this was the band that released a split with At the Drive-In after all. But their CDs seemed to be thoroughly out of print: I tried ordering one through my local record stores, and no dice (the other was more blatantly out of print). I put a word in with the record stores that new me and bought used music from customers, but it took months before I finally stumbled into one at Schoolkids in Raleigh, NC. And as my jaw dropped (really), I looked below it to find the other. They were slightly mangled, but fully playable, and I was happy as could be when I walked out of the store that day. I enjoyed the heck out of those albums, and it wasn’t more than a few more months when the release of both albums on vinyl was announced.
While J. has been in demand as a producer and released work with a few more bands, his son Callum has been a large part of where his energy has been focused, even publicly. Callum was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) and the medical bills related to this are not the kind that are easy to deal with, so the vinyl release was announced as partly being another fundraiser for that reason. Between the excitement of the announcement–as well as the news that bonus tracks would be included–and the fact that part of each sale was going to help Callum, it was kind of a no-brainer to order up. Still, I was basically broke–between jobs, to some extent–so I worked out an advance Christmas present order from my parents to make sure I could get my hands on both, worried as I was about them disappearing.
I haven’t listened to them much, purely because they’re at the beginning of the alphabet, and I knew I’d get here soon (and that doesn’t mean I didn’t listen to the original CDs, my digital copies, my digital copies of related tracks, or the included expanded CDs!). I selected the colouring of this one out of the three available, much as I did with Mission: Control!, and settled on the colour I just didn’t have in my collection yet–the blue and white swirl. The availability of the two records from Arctic Rodeo themselves hints at something that surprised me in the album selection: Mission: Control! is the sold out album, was the first one I was told to listen to, and was the one voted for by a fan (outside the poll). It makes it interesting, then, that both Mr. Moffett and two people who did vote picked it in the end. It’s a happy sort of occurrence that I like for the very fact of its unexpected nature.
Arctic Rodeo packed the record in a resealable plastic sleeve, with the record in a plain white paper sleeve outside the actual cover to keep it from being split in transit–a nice bit of care that not even used sellers often bother with. They also allow for colour selection (though the red/black is all that’s left of Identikit, or with them at all from the band), which Dischord (the U.S. label that originally released the first two Jawbox albums, as well as the LPs from Channels and Office of Future Plans, both of them J. Robbins projects) does not provide, though they still have stock of both albums. Eventually, some more of their releases should be showing up in this blog, once they arrive (the label is in Germany, and has a smaller staff, but are very good about what they do).
Now, I said that Mission: Control! was the album that was singled out as good when I first picked up both Burning Airlines albums, but I picked up both of them at the same time. There was no intermediary period where I only had one to wear in before I heard the other, which I think is a decent part of what keeps that impression burning with fans. I mean, when an album opens with a song like “Outside the Aviary”, it’s difficult to see what anyone could see as lacking. J.’s voice comes in immediately, aggressive but not angry in sound, “Now clarity lost out to desire, and I married the madness in her eyes”, riffing rapidly behind himself on guitar in a way that brings melody but leaves the focus on voice and words. A wild bursting slide brings Moffett’s “membranophones and idiophones” in on a fill, with Harbin blurring into the background just a bit, until J.’s riffing slips down to a much quieter lick, one with a downward turn that puts that kick into the song that let’s you know it’s not like every other song you’ve heard, but is so completely organic as a move that it isn’t at all a gimmick just to be unique. Moffett doesn’t let up at all, though, rocksteady and pounding along on a seemingly simple beat, as Harbin rumbles up and down, taking control of the instrumental melody behind J.’s voice, which is suddenly harmonized by Moffett in a very pretty way, who suddenly takes off with a fill that launches the song into the air: J.’s voice regains an edge as Moffett adds a lovely series of “Woo-oo”s that would seem weird in a song like this–especially coming out of a drummer this emphatic–if they weren’t somehow just right anyway. There’s a fantastically rapid series of kicks from him as J. and Peter launch into an alternating repetition of the song’s title, before a halting beat and riffs end the song suddenly. 
“Morricone Dancehall” has a guitar sound at open that is bent just off clear and keyed, giving it a metallic edge, like two strings wobbling toward each other as a guitar is tuned, but stopping short of actually reaching the same note. Moffett enters underneath, with a much more peculiar beat than “Outside the Aviary”, that blends in a delightful way into Harbin’s burbling bassline, the both seeming to intertwine as they both hit their lowest pitches. “Damned!” J. suddenly interjects, “Is this the body you were last found living in? What you bury has a way of blossoming, all that bitterness in bloom on your skin,” his words furiously running into each other, but unslurred, though there’s just a hint that his voice is coming from a distance or through a muffling like a microphone. The guitar is no longer riffing and clanging metallically, but quavering in slightly dissonant waves. The original sound returns though, for a much more ominous bridge where Moffett joins Robbins: “And all the aces are wired, and all the forces conspire in this brutal bed” that suddenly turns to a sneer from them both: “Without the body there is no crime”. After running through this chorus a second time, a wandering series of notes ended with chords is backed by a wonderfully smooth, looping sort of bassline from Harbin. 
Staccato riffs that hold the same note for four beats at a time open “A Lexicon”, before Harbin hesitantly enters, the bass only marking a bit more time than the guitar. When Moffett enters, the stiffness of the song is suddenly released with a beat that almost shifts it toward a danceable sort of groove, a neat trick when it happens, made that much more impressive by the way that it plays with and against Harbin’s half-rhythmic, half-melodic bassline. J.’s riffing doubles then builds with Moffett, and then drops away to clean, clear single-picked guitar notes. But then both the stiff, nearly monotonic guitar and the dancing drum turn to a sound that feels more like the sound you’d expect from a rock band, despite never making apparent that it was going to turn “normal” for any reason.
The song the band contributed to the At the Drive-In split was “The Deluxe War Baby”, which appears next on the record, built on a partly muted guitar lick that lollops along with the bass to give it almost the sense of a Western-y, cowboy-type sound, until Moffett’s wild drumming carries them all into a more fully ranged period of the song that also sends Robbins’s voice up into its heights. The whole thing swings, but not swing like a swing band, more like a pendulum with a groove to its arc, bobbing just slightly, moving forward instead of standing in place. Not a song to sneeze at, and a perfectly reasonable selection for inclusion on a release usually intended to function as representative (as with Jawbox, the version appearing on the split is a different recording, so far as I can tell).
“A Song with No Words” is nothing of the kind, as J. even opens the song singing, “Here are some words…” but it most certainly could’ve survived even as an instrumental. A dissonantly melodic (yeah, figure that one out–it’s a Robbins specialty, though) opens the song, scrabbling along the strings but never losing a moment as it shifts in pitch. It disappears in favour of letting Moffett lay down a short, sharp rhythm that seems to keep the rhythm on the hi-hat (and the occasional “thing that goes ting-a-ling”, as well as the one that goes “plink”²) separate from the drum and kick. Mike is again playing a chopped up bassline, but this one sounds like going up and down a few stairs at a time, then pausing to consider. It’s the heartbeat of the song, as both J. and Peter are wandering in far more directions on either end of it. It’s a slower, more relaxed song as compared to the prior ones, and that opening lick is just fantastic.
I don’t know where J. gets to find all the cool drummers, but he seems to do so anyway. I spent a lot of my writing about Jawbox talking about the mighty Zach Barocas (which I apparently was right to do, in his eyes), and Moffett shines in this band. “All Sincerity” has enough space in it to make this apparent: tiny, wonderfully varied fills litter the song, all adding just a little bit here and there, but a simple listen sounds more like it’s just a nice rock and roll beat. This is also an opportune time to point out that when J. said in his thing with Death Cab’s Chris Walla that he agonizes over lyrics for a long time, it shows: “Let’s clarify this twist/Pin this butterfly kiss/Senseless senses sweetly simplify/We twitch like marionettes in lascivious bliss/Silhouette, silhouette, how black is your heart?” Woof. It’s not the only example on here, but working in a tongue-twisting set of words and that much alliteration without sacrificing sense or simply setting up everything around it is some kind of achievement.
The burn and brush of “The Surgeon’s House” is another highlight: that lick from J. is amazing, the way it leans you back like a friend but has a devilish sort of subtext in tone–the kind that I just cannot wait to hear again every time I hear it. Mike anchors it heavily with a tightly cadenced bassline, and Peter laying down a jazzy beat that’s more cymbal and brush than powerful kick just lets that lick shine like it should. Robbins also works out a much quieter version of his voice than we’ve heard on the album so far, letting the track seem non-threatening until the lick flexes its muscle, eventually beginning to completely overtake everything else, wandering in and out and around itself, Peter backing it with the song’s most forceful drumming. 
Strange electronic noises (I’m voting for “space sounds” by Mike here, though that phrase is subject to lots of interpretation) open “Everything Here Is New”, and a reverberating guitar joins them to create a quirk that turns mysterious. There’s a mist over the track, and what’s under it is unclear–the instruments are apparent (or, at least, clear–those noises are beyond my amateur ear’s ability to place). Harbin’s bass weaves right around Robbins’s voice, which sweeps an arm out to display this world of newness, ghosts, shell games and emptiness to the listener.
I was tempted to completely deadpan the idea that “Paper Crowns” was about a birthday party at a Burger King, but the only concession I’ll make to that idea is admitting it. On the surface, the opening of the song would be normal were it not for the skronking bend that appears at the end of each repetition. Tambourines that echo ’60s pop in sound and rhythm are hiding in here (perhaps that’s what goes “ting-a-ling”?), backing a full-bodied set of vocals from Peter and J. in unison. Peter takes some control for a later bridge, which eases the tempo of the song like an ethereal connector between the beginning and end of the song–and let’s Harbin get in a few notes in the forefront. And then it all spirals off into a glitchy electronic breakdown that kicks us right into “Blind Trial”.
At open, J. is flattened ears and questioning, guitar playing a broken jangle, quiet and muted, and Peter and Mike adding a rhythm section straight out of pop punk–1-2,1-2 drums, steady quarter notes on the bass, and then all of them go somewhere else for the chorus: a tightly wound spring of guitar and a bass free of restraint, drums no longer stuck with just snare-kick-snare-kick, yet all still absolutely controlled. Interestingly, it’s the moment the vocals are most “normal”, a nice, “simple” chorus! And then it starts to breakdwon at its second appearance: “This drug was never approved” J. sings, and the signature changes entirely, stretching and dragging as if the drug in question was affecting the song itself. It finds its feet again, though, regaining its control and returning the original chorus. Then a near drum solo turns to spacey stretching and repetition from J. and Peter’s voices.
Did I say Peter got to shine earlier? Go back and forget that. The opening of the title track is something else. Where you would think to hear a simple roll across toms, there’s an alternating in pitch that means either there’s a very deep tom, or he’s alternating toms and kicks (!)³, usually more the hallmark of long-winded drum solos, but here worked directly into the song as Robbins and Harbin join on top of it. The ringing harmonic-style sound J. uses heavily in Burning Airlines is heavy here. The chorus is almost a “breakdown”–driving, rhythmic riffing and pounding drums define the beat absolutely explicitly.
“Tastykake” is interesting: Harbin’s bass is the only instrument that sounds normal. Moffett gets to open another track with a thump-skitter sort of beat that turns to a rapid, wild solo, but sounds vaguely deadened, as does the hanging distorted effect of Robbins’ guitar. Quiet and warm, J. sings an opening line that I can only suspect refers to his wife, but could just coincidentally name someone with the same first name. Still, the song seems to have a sense that that’s the sort of relationship it would be directed at in some respects. It feels as if the instruments are crushed into a small box as it opens, but opens up when Moffett adds a shaker to his rhythms, and J,’s guitar widens its own sound, his voice opening up, too. 
Often an appropriate choice for latter ends of albums, J. sings with acoustic guitar on “Earthbound”, a thumping low string creating the only audible rhythmic anchor. The guitar has a similar “crushed” sound to “Tastykake”–a deliberately off, simple, rough recording. A wobble snakes in and out of the part, but J.s vocals, especially when joined by Peter on the chorus, are clear and pretty. 
“Election-Night Special” is the low-end gravity of the album: thumping bass, kicks and even low end riffs drive the whole thing (my inexpert ear even suspects there might be some down-tuning at play here). It’s almost fragmentary in its appearance: it’s only 2 minutes, and opens with the crescendoing snare hits that a fair number of songs do, and when it cuts off, feels more abrupt than sudden, despite no cuts in the actual playing.
Another song with multiple recordings and appearances, “Dear Hilary” is a cover (of sorts) of the band Metroschifter, and also appears on the “Metroschifter” album Encapsulated (it’s actually their then-new album, only it’s recorded by bands they chose–clever idea, really). The band worked from a demo outline to create the song. It’s a smart choice for the final song (bear with me, now, if you’re looking at the tracklist), as it’s the work of the band, but is very much not the style they’ve displayed elsewhere in the album. A clean, haunting guitar finger-picking is the core of the song, eventually doubled, then later backed with almost pure-cymbal “drums”, but for a falling set of tom beats repeated intermittently. Harbin anchors, and J. and Peter’s voices join together, the closest the song comes to aggression. J. finally repeats the opening line and throws himself at it: “Dear Hilary, how many years has it been/Since you were going off to college and you wrote me a letter?” It closes with the kind of line and sound that just hangs in the air afterward: “The hardest thing about opening up to someone is putting so much power in their hands.”
However, I mentioned this album is expanded. It now closes with a cover of Sweet’s “Action”, which the band plays quite straightforwardly–and who can blame them? This kind of infectious glam rock is just fun, and I have little doubt it’s also quite fun to play. The solo J. peels off is more in line with the kind that fits the song–not that I’m going to pretend to be familiar with the original version of “Sweet”, and it’d be disingenuous to run out now and try to compare them quickly as I write. It feels like a bonus track, in the sense of a hidden one–like the kind of thing that would “hide” at the end, instead of being right out there. A delightful addition, really.
I thanked Peter Moffett earlier for nudging me into a final decision regarding albums, but I should also thank J. Robbins who was kind enough to satisfy my pedantic desires and tell me that “Action” was actually recorded for the Japanese release of this album–as well as commenting on my Jawbox entry, and answering my request for a decision on this topic, too (even if his answer was to not choose one!). If I sound overly chummy, I don’t mean to; I just send him electronic questions here and there when I can stop fidgeting and worrying over it long enough to bite the bullet and accept that I might be obnoxious in doing so. 
Regardless, when I wrote about Big Star, I mentioned that there was actually one band I’d demand people listen to before I did Big Star, and only as relates to the comparative familiarity of the world at large. Then backpedaled a bit. That’s because I don’t have Jawbox or For Your Own Special Sweetheart on vinyl, which I think I mentioned. I’ve only got a lone single (“Absenter” b/w “Chinese Fork Tie”). If pressed, though, this is the band I’d tell people they need to hear. J.’s style on a guitar manages to simultaneously cover strange, alien, atonal, dissonant, and catchy, melodic, and irresistible. Moffett and Harbin don’t leave the band’s sound anemic outside of the most established musical voice, either, and neither fail to live up to his work, nor sit flaccid in the back and pound out boring tripe, instead adding equal and interesting parts to create a still unique sound.
One of the most bizarre things I ever read was the series of negative reviews for their two albums on Amazon that complained that they sounded like new albums from Jawbox. Why this was something to complain about is entirely beyond me–and it wasn’t even, contextually, something those reviewers saw as bad. Not even repetition–actual evolution. It boggles the mind even now. I’d kill (hyperbole, of course) for new Jawbox–to find an evolution of that sound was…indescribable. There are so many bands and sounds I wish I could get more of, instead of complete disappearance or lackluster retread. Here we have a band that actually is distinctly different, even as it ties backward. Burning Airlines have a more “upbeat” sound to them than the latter half of Jawbox: wiry tension, aggression, or semi-morose tones defined a lot of that band’s latter work. Not in a bad way (if it was a bad way, Jawbox would not be one of those albums that somehow worms its way into my regular listening all the bloody time), but in a way that just felt a part of the sound.
Burning Airlines may not be quite cheerful, I suppose, but it’s almost like melding the crashes, bangs, and clatters of Jawbox back into a more pop-like format (which should never be considered or taken as an insult, for the record, which I think my collection will show increasingly). The harmonic leanings–most definitively apparent in Mission: Control!‘s “Scissoring” even give J. a different feeling in this band.
I guess the end result is: don’t complain about good things. And certainly don’t complain about amazing things that you almost never get.
²It’s a triangle. But that’s one of the things he’s credited with on the album, alongside things that go “plonk” and “plink”–the latter I decided were the claves in “A Song with No Words”, but onomatopoeia can, oddly, mean different sounds to people. Oh, yes: also membranophones and ideophones. IE, his brand-conscious “blue drums and shiny cymbals”. Yeah, I really read all of the liner notes. An amusing parallel to J. and Mike’s usage of Schecter Guitars–“blue drums and shiny cymbals”. Ha!
³I apologize profusely to drummers who know things, including Peter Moffett himself. I’m not a drummer, I can only describe the sounds I hear–I’m not going to swear if I’m not pretty darn sure, just try to associate the sounds enough that it might make sense to someone else.
  • Next Up: Kate Bush – ?

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