What we’re listening to (#3): ‘Selected Ambient Works’ by Aphex Twin

Described by the Guardian as “the most inventive and influential figure in contemporary electronic music”, Richard David James is an Irish-born electronic musician and songwriter. James credits his success to his early start in music, producing music as early as age 12 – he also studied for  a National Diploma in engineering:

“Music and electronics went hand in hand” – Aphex Twin

After meeting friend Grant Wilson-Claridge, he pressed some of his recordings onto vinyl – he released his first EP ‘Analogue Bubblebath’  in 1991. He received his first major breakthrough when his EP ended up on the playlist of Kiss FM, a London based radio-station. James would go on to found a record label with Wilson-Claridge (Rephlex Records), and moved to London to pursue his passion in music (though he initially moved for academic reasons).

In 1992, James, under the guise of ‘Aphex Twin’, released Selected Ambient Works 85-92 – this album has widely been heralded as one of the landmark albums in the Intelligent Dance Music  and Electronic Dance Music genres. FACT Magazine named it as their best album of the 90s, and it has since been featured on many critics’ lists, including the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Apart from the obvious quality of the music produced on the album (though, notably the sound quality itself is poor), what is intriguing is the methods he used in production – James claims to have written his own software to compose with, which uses algorithmic processes to automatically create beats and melodies. He also claims that he is able to use lucid dreaming during his production sessions.

The fluidity of the music is the first thing that hits you, and you can almost feel it wash over you – even though this is dance music, the relaxation it provides (to me, anyway) is almost unparalleled. He then sprinkles in the soothing synth playing, and adds a dash of eerie bass lines to really make his songs complete. The masters are unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. Behind it all lies the slightly distorted backbeats, which subtly change throughout every track.

James experiments with several other production methods throughout, calling upon prepared pianos, drum machines,  and synthesizers to do his bidding. The result is no doubt one of the most influential albums in the genre; Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk claims Aphex Twin to be a real influence for his music, as does John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (who states that Aphex Twin is “the best thing since sliced bread”).

Many have compared Aphex Twin to the work of Brian Eno, and whilst James has the utmost respect for his work, it’s clear he was never wanting to imitate – and he did not. James instead set the bar for future electronic musicians, and was setting an example.

Despite the simplicity (some of the songs were made when James was about to turn 16 years old), this album is incredible. What’s more, it is very consistent in it’s quality, though I can’t say I enjoyed them all to a point where I’d list them on a personal list (though, some of them are on there), in particular ‘Tha’, in which James makes use of some strange sound effects. What really does it though is the closer on the album – the track you listen to last will have the most lasting impact, and ‘I’ has an impact that I haven’t forgotten for a while now. The shortest track on the album at under 2 minutes long, the synth really ends the album on a positive, and gives away the style of music he creates on the second volume of the same album.

This album is to Electronic music what The Velvet Underground and Nico was to Rock and Roll.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez

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