Saturday, September 6, 2014

Aphex Twin 'Syro' Listening Party at The Laundry, 5th September 2014

You'd think we were lambs being led to the slaughter.  After an hour's wait in a Hackney back street we're urged down a concrete ramp towards a dark cellar.  Our phones are stripped from us and bouncers systematically rifle through our pockets for recording devices.  Finally we emerge into a ill-lit cement basement.  The remains of a 1960s paintjob peel from the walls and old industrial fossils rustily jut from the ceiling.

It's moody, creepy and slightly oppressive.  The perfect spot to experience new Aphex Twin then. Richard D. James (aka Aphex Twin, aka AFX, aka Polygon Window, aka The Tuss etc etc) is the mystery King of electronic music: the Mozart of mixers, the Beethoven of the breakbeat, the Shostakovich of sampling, the uh.. Kirchner of the Korg PS-3300.   He's the guy playing chess while his contemporaries are still struck on whack-a-mole. James inhabits a mist of pseudonyms, half-truths and urban legends, more than happy to let bizarre stories about his reclusive life and behaviour spread like wildfire - the enigma made ironic by constantly using his own sinisterly grinning face as a visual motif.

Much hype surrounds Syro being his first album in 13 years - as if James had been sitting around twiddling his thumbs since the 2001 release of Drukqs.  Frankly his output over this period diminishes the importance of the 'traditional' album release, including the monumental Analord series (four and a half hours of music over 11 EPs), his anonymous work as 'Brian and Karen Tregaskin', a (likely fictional) couple collaborating under the pseudonym 'The Tuss' and, apparently, ten completed and unreleased albums he doesn't feel ready to release yet.

This is a good way of announcing an album.
But the subject of tonight's event, Syro, described by James as  his "most accessible" record yet is very much ready to go.  'Accessible' is like a slight misnomer when it comes to Aphex Twin; his brand of insanely complex, sometimes aggressive and idiosyncratic dance music makes no concessions to commercial musical trends.  But it is accessible in that, unlike most high-falutin' experimental music, you can rave your tits off to it.

As the crowd finishes filing in, we stand, lit only by the soft yellow/green glow of a projector.  Then, *whump* minipops 67 kicks in.  I'd listened to it earlier in the day on headphones at home, but standing next to the speaker the initial beats are like taking a blow to the gut. The volume is ear-splittingly intense, the bass rattles my bones, the jelly of my brain wobbles away to the beat.  This is a good way to hear music for the first time.  

As we progress through the album we quickly hear that unmistakable Aphex sound - the skeleton of the music a beat thudding away in the background while infinitely varied synth melodies, drum flourishes and distorted samples frolic away in the gaps.  I hate the genre description 'intelligent dance music' (as James quite rightly pointed out it snootily implies "this is intelligent and everything else is stupid"), but after hearing music like this I can't help but think there's at least something to the description.  

His arrhythmic tangles of sounds, somehow both chaotic and ordered tease and cajole the brain.  There's just so much going on; the joy of hearing gossamer-light synthesiser melodies flitting into view like a butterflies before vanishing back into the beat.  Tiny snare rat-a-tats appear and run away, cheekily pulsating for a few seconds as if in opposition to the thumping bass.  Its not so much that this is dance music for intelligent people; more that you get more out of it the more you focus in on it, the music most beautiful in those brief moments where your brainwaves synchronise with what's you're hearing, the sensation of being able to divine order in chaos.

Or you can just let it sweep you away on a blissful amphetamine haze.  Listening to an album for the first time is usually a solitary affair for me; going out for a run or lying in bed with headphones on.  Experiencing it in a basement full of dancing bodies is a different story altogether. Smiles, whoops and happy claps fill the room when things get dead virtuoso, the mood enhanced by appearance of distorted Aphex logos projected on the wall and the deployment of a very powerful strobe when things get real heavy.  At the front of the room an insanely happy, very sweaty fat man is going bananas, stomping and screaming like a caveman that's brought down a mammoth - his presence immeasurably adding to my enjoyment of the music.

This is what James means when he says that Syro is accessible.  This is experimental, bold and technically outstanding music, but it's music you can dance to.  In a 1995 article in The Wire magazine, they sent an Aphex Twin sampler to experimental music luminary Karlheinz Stockhausen for his opinion.  He loftily pronounced that James should "immediately stop with all these post-African repetitions".  James responded: "he should listen to a couple of tracks of mine ... then he'd stop making abstract, random patterns you can't dance to."

It's this inclusive, raver friendly ethos that powers Syro, an album utterly unashamed of being dance music.  The sway of hips to the beat, the shuffle of feet on the floor and palms shining upwards to the sky aren't something to be embarrassed about, they're the essence of the genre; the irresistible effect on the body of a crazy/fun beat.  To deny this is to miss the point.  And so, tucked away within the tracks are sonic quotes of twenty years of dance: the music crammed with strangely familiar beats and samples, dredging up memories of 6am sweatboxes, the frantic chewing of gum and pinpoint pupils.

Closing out the album is the beautiful aisatsana, departing from thumping bass for soft, slow, reflective piano repetitions.  Birdsong samples waft gently throughout the piece, conjuring up happy times of wandering home from a club in the early morning with promise of a hot cup of tea on arrival, reflecting on all the night.  It's the kind of song you wish could go on forever, James apparently never running out of minute pitch shifts and variations on the basic melody.  It's lovely.  

I sense that musicologists are still going to be listening to, unpicking and appreciating Richard D James a century from now.  I just hope they still know how to dance.

Syro is released 19th September on Warp Records.

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