It’s 2014 and there is a new Aphex Twin album, which means the most conspicuous musical drought this side of My Bloody Valentine has ended. Syro, unlike the Caustic Window LP released earlier this year, is not a collection of material cut during Richard James’ prolific 1990s heyday and shelved. It’s a new album of new music recorded in the last few years, and it’s said to be the first of more to come. Unlike MBV, it’s not that James went away entirely—in 2005, he released a series of Analord 12" EPs as AFX, and there were a couple of low-key EPs as the Tuss. But with many-monikered electronic musicians, branding is everything: it’s not an Aphex Twin release unless it’s presented as an Aphex Twin release.
Syro is an unusual album to contemplate because its overall approach is not particularly unusual. Older fans of electronic music who followed along with James’ shape-shifting in the 1990s may need to adjust their expectations slightly. On the evidence here, he has no interest in re-inventing his sound. Syro has few extremes, no hyper-intense splatter-breaks or satanic “Come to Daddy” vocals or rushes of noise. On the other end of the spectrum, Syro doesn’t cast James in a quasi-classical light; there's no “serious composer” tracks like “4” or “Girl/Boy Song” that beg to be arranged for string quartet. And there are no “Windowlicker”-like nods to pop, no attempts to smuggle some truly weird music onto the charts.
Without all that, what’s left? Sixty-five minutes of highly melodic, superbly arranged, precisely mixed, texturally varied electronic music that sounds like it could have come from no other artist. James throughout the ’90s was an influence sponge; part of his genius was how he took ideas and ran them through his highly idiosyncratic filter. The bizarro highlights came when he put his own spin on genres, making jungle weirder, pop more unsettling, and piano music more gorgeous. Syro also absorbs many different sounds, from loping breakbeat to drum’n’bass to techno proper to hints of disco, but in a more subtle way. It has a way of making other genres seem like they exist to serve this particular vision. And it’s a confident album precisely because it’s not self-consciously pushing the envelope. Electronic music with a strong beat not intended for the dancefloor was, if not invented by this guy, certainly perfected by him. So with his first trip back from the wilderness, he’s demonstrating exactly how it’s done.
Syro scans as “’90s” in terms of form but is quite modern in its particulars. Music sounded like this in 1996, but it didn’t sound quite this good. Whether James has acquired better machines or improved the way in which he records them, Syro contains some of his most tactile music; it’s a headphone record par excellence, an hour-long feast for the ears. But as exquisite as all the fragments are in isolation, the heart of the record is its steady sense of momentum, all the more remarkable since the tempos are mostly relaxed and uniform. James has spoken of tricks he uses in sequencing to free his music from a ridged digital grid; whatever his methods, his rhythmic DNA is as identifiable as John Bonham’s. There’s a playful swing to his rhythms, with accents that dance on and around the beat, and that unmistakable drive is the frame upon which the album is built.
The album’s formal simplicity keeps the focus on the arrangements, especially in the first half. The ten-and-a-half-minute “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]” glides forward like a smooth stone over polished ice, allowing a new element—a sly melodic twist, a stuttering shift in the beat, an unusually bassy groan—to enter seamlessly in every bar. It’s complicated but never busy, myriad parts cohering into a logical whole. “4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26]” mixes muted acid squelches with twinkly keyboard melodies, with barely-there voices intoning a few layers beneath, while the opening “minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]” has wordless singing presented straight—the one new wrinkle on the album—and it’s so naked it’s disarming. The album gets a few clicks harsher in places, as on “CIRCLONT6A [141.98][syrobonkus mix]”, with its assertive bass grind and rubbery video game noises, but it never goes too far in that direction. The care and virtuosity with which these tracks were assembled is immediately obvious, but nothing feels difficult; the record’s easy flow despite it all is one of its primary virtues, and there’s something new to uncover with every listen.
Syro’s tremendous focus on detail marks it as a more muted release in Aphex Twin’s discography. The “What the hell was that?”, once an Aphex touchstone, is nowhere to be found; there’s little here in the way of brute-force appeals to the lizard brain, and Syro is on balance more sophisticated and cerebral. And that silliness, that bratty desire to be noticed, was part of what made the Aphex Twin experience special. Some will miss it. But this record—virtuosic, precise, but also alive with feeling—has something else in mind. It’s telling that the most extreme moment here is also the quietest—the closing “aisatsana ”, a painfully lovely minimalist piano piece recorded on a creaky upright with birds chirping away in the background. By that moment, the feeling of “I’m listening to a new Aphex Twin album” has fallen away and the deeper beauty of Syro starts to sink in.