June 13, 2009

Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works Vol. II (1994, Warp Records)

Aphex Twin has been a huge creative inspiration to me since I was a teenager in the mid-'90s, when I found his classic IDM album "...I Care Because You Do" available from corporate music mail-order service BMG, which I was hooked on at the time. The album, like much of Aphex Twin's material, is both sonically fascinating, catchy and yet challenging, making use of bizarre synthesizer noises and experimental FX processing. Richard D. James, the mad genius behind Aphex Twin, is semi-infamous for his eccentricity, and has managed to spawn a significant cult of personality around his obscure releases, which is pretty impressive considering he makes quirky electronic music, and not stadium rock. Legends have grown about James driving a miniature tank rather than a car, about living in an old bank vault and locking himself in for days at a time making music, and building all his gear "from scratch" or at least modifying and hacking his equipment and creating "black box" FX units. Whatever the truth is, James has managed to inspire people's fascination and created a big collector's scene centered around the "major" IDM labels of the '90s: Warp Records, Rephlex, and Skam. Besides his beat-oriented IDM material and later excursions into high-speed drill'n'bass territory, Aphex has produced material on the more textural and ambient side of things. "Selected Ambient Works Vol. II" collects nearly 140 minutes of this material on 2CDs, and is an epic, ground-breaking, and timeless release. Continuing on the path of beautiful Aphex obscurity, there are no track titles per se, but instead there are round "pie charts" containing small wedges of photographs. Each "pie" relates to a sequence of tracks on the CD/LP, with the size of the pie slice proportionally related to the length of the track. Thus, some collector geeks with too much time on their hands have managed to put together a "tracklist" using descriptions of the photos, such as "curtains", "weathered stone", "domino", "lichen", etc. James has said that his inspiration for the album was his many lucid dreams he has had since a child, and his memories of the music and sounds he heard in his dreams. The music itself is a sort of looping ambient style, composed of repeating melodic motifs and synthesizer textures that build and fade in and out of each other. Far from formless, the tracks are harmonically rich and memorable, with catchy melodic hooks that remind me of the modern Kompakt Pop Ambient sound. Occasionally, faint throbbing drums make a distant appearance, such as on the haunting "grass" and "blur" (CD1-4 and CD1-7), while some tracks even enter a subdued rhythmic IDM territory, predating Susumu Yokota's ambient production style on the classic "Sakura". Snippets of vocal samples and laughter appear in a few of the tracks, but overall the sound-source is surreal and other-wordly, without sounding particularly dated or "synthy". Aphex Twin has never really returned to this production style since the mid-'90s, although he has never ceased to innovate in other genres of electronic music. "Selected Ambient Works Vol. II" is an album that can be listened to on "random play" and often yields new sonic experiences with each listen.