Monday, May 05, 2014

Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works, Volume II

I suddenly turn around and it's been 20 years--20 years!--since 1994. What does that mean in musical terms? Well, probably a lot of things. A lot of good music came out that year, but the one that completely blew my young impressionable mind was Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II (henceforth abbreviated as SAW2). I don't know how, but probably by accident, I picked up this double CD sometime soon after it came out completely unaware of its history, the man behind it, or what it even sounded like. Usually, I am way behind the curve on new music but there I was, in 1994, in a record store in Northampton, Massachusetts, buying this CD with my hard-earned money, which, to put it mildly was very miniscule at the time. It then proceeded to blow my mind.

So why is this album one of my favorite albums of ALL time? Mainly because no album before or since has opened up the possibilities of electronic music for me in the same way that SAW2 did. There's a been a few anniversary write-ups recently on the album, most notably on that website that shall not be named. A new book has also just come out on the album in the 33 1/3 book series, written by Marc Weidenbaum who did an astonishing amount of research trying to track down its gestation, its sound, and its meaning.

Naturally, given that pretty much every single person dabbling in electronic music since the mid-1990s has been influenced by SAW2, going back to listen to the original might evoke familiar sensations, like you've heard it all before. But that's the weird thing about the original album: it still feels just as weird and "out of time." It's ambient electronic music in the sense that the each track (which were all unnamed in the original release) was based on the seeming repetition of identical musical phrases. So you might get seven minutes of the same thing repeated but as you delve deeper you begin to notice the almost-microscopic changes occurring through each track, sometimes a minor change in beat or meter, sometimes in a single note introduced suddenly. There's a palpable sense of unease throughout the recording, designed to make you feel comfortable but not entirely comfortable. We hear very little percussion on the album so most of it just kind of floats by. When we do hear drums, it's jarring, like a tribe of extinct locusts marching to destroy a field of crops as in here:

Sometimes, it's the creepy resonance of floating tones as you enter a house that was once haunted but now remains in your imagination:

The person behind all this, one Richard D. James, is an odd character. An English musician who has almost no use for the trappings of modern fame, he basically keeps to himself and releases stuff occasionally, with no rhyme or reason or any attention to the winds of change in music. I don't really know much about him, which is fine. You've probably seen his face in the infamous "Windowlicker" video which I will not post here but is worth checking out if you are not at work.

Anyway, I'm listening to it right now. And honestly, it's still just as strange, beautiful, and ingenious as it sounded twenty years ago to me. I had been schooled in your basic guitar-bass-drum format for so many years that this album opened my eyes to an entirely new world out there. And so began a few more years trawling through all manner of techno/electronic music.


Kyle Scott Anderson said...

I haven't been introduced to the electronic sound until very recently, but I love how they slowly add more depth to their music. Great post.

spaceman said...

Thanks for your comment! Appreciate the visit.