Monday, September 17, 2007

[068] Selected Ambient Works 85-92

Album: Selected Ambient Works 85-92
Artist: Aphex Twin
Release Date: February 1992
Label: Apollo/R&S; reissued on Pias America
Producer: Richard D. James

Myth is a powerful thing in music. The building of an artist's legend is often instrumental to them becoming famous and staying that way. From Robert Johnson at the crossroads to Led Zeppelin and the mud shark, a smudging of the truth can make a musician that much larger. Richard D. James has made some amazing advances in electronic music, but he's crafted his own myth just as much. There is so much information about his career online that at times I didn't feel confident using any of it, because it all seemed too perfect. But I realized that is his twisted way of doing things, and it only adds to his impact on music. None of us should be surprised that an artist who's released music under over a dozen different names would also find it necessary to blur the lines on his biography.

Aphex Twin is the name he's most known for though, and so here you find his debut album. The title alone is the first piece of his puzzle you come across - if it is to be believed, then some of this material could date back to when James was only 13 or 14 years old, not to mention it would be years ahead of the entire electronic music community. If any shred of it is true, then he is that much more of a groundbreaker. But I'm getting ahead of myself. James grew up a prodigy in electronics. He would take things apart and modify them, change them around, put them back together, to the point that he started creating his own keyboards and sequencers. This is another huge part of his legend - if you are creating your own instruments, then no one else is going to have music that sounds like yours. It would be hard to tell what's so special now, 15 to 20 years later, because you hear music like this everyday, on store muzak, in the background of TV shows & commercials, everywhere; since the release of this and other of his early works, James's influence is so widespread that he could easily be credited with steering nearly half of the entire electronic music genre, not to mention making the best band of the last 20 years, Radiohead, want to put their guitars down. Despite being preceded by vaguely similar advances made by The Orb, Richard D. James did one thing that no one had ever done. He made dance music to NOT dance to. It was dubbed Ambient Techno by some, somewhat in line with the soundscapes Brian Eno had done in the late 70's, and "Intelligent Dance Music" or IDM by others. Warp Records, the label that would sign James almost immediately following the release of this album, called it "electronic listening music", and they wasted no time placing him at the head of what would turn out to be a decade-plus mission to push IDM into the dance community's consciousness and revolutionize electronic music.

One of the most consistent parts of his early legend is that James would craft these tracks and record them on regular cassette tapes so that he could drive around with his friends and pop the tapes in the car stereo. Supposedly, some of this incredible album was actually mastered off those tapes! Not only that, but another part of the myth whispers that some of the tape might have fell victim to mangling by a house cat (it's not clear if it was James's cat though). All this is unbelievable when you listen to the album, because what I guess would be damaged tape sounds like filtered decay, and what would be the tape hiss just seems like part of the intended atmosphere. The reason I said that this would be dance music to not dance to is because while the beats are there, they're so murky and far back in the mix that it would be hard to get your groove on. This became the music that you hear in the chill out rooms in clubs or the bars off the main rooms of concert halls because it recreates the muffled sound of tinnitus or inebriation or being really stoned; it also spawned hundreds of imitators that made careers never leaving their bedroom studios; a few, like say Boards of Canada, have even made their own classics.

It's no wonder that the music influenced so many people. The relatively laidback beats, with much lower BPMs than dance fans were used to, draw you in, and the simple, layered compositions give you the impression that you could do this too. James was just as influenced by others here, whether it was Brian Eno, his Acid comtemporaries, early techno pioneers, or old school electro/Hip-Hop acts; the sounds are here, but they're remnants of the past, drenched in dubbed-out echo bass and adorned with beeps and blips. Richard D. James was on his way to being one of the leading electronic composers of all time, never settling for one sound or another, eventually excelling at many diverse styles, from brutal industrial drill & bass to lucid dream-inspired ambient texture movements. He created a legend for himself, but in the end, he was talented enough that he didn't need it.

01. "Xtal"
02. "Tha"
03. "Pulsewidth"
04. "Ageispolis"
05. "i"
06. "Green Calx"
07. "Heliosphan"
08. "We Are The Music Makers"
09. "Schottkey 7th Path"
10. "Ptolemy"
11. "Hedphelym"
12. "Delphium"
13. "Actium"

All these videos are unofficial and made by fans.

"Ageispolis" [audio excerpt]

- BONUS: "Tha" [audio]
- BONUS: "Heliosphan" [audio]
- BONUS: "Xtal" [audio]
WARNING: the fan-made video that accompanies this song includes news footage of intense human suffering, including scenes of 9/11 and Columbine.
- BONUS: a little mashup fun with "Ageispolis"

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