Dance, Electronic

Aphex Twin- “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” Review

Although it has been largely swamped in the general imagination by his far more interesting reputation as a reclusive, sardonic intransigent, there was a brief period when Aphex Twin’s murky trajectory intersected with the pop mainstream. He’s there, both visibly uneasy and wryly remote, in an ill-fated MTV interview from 1996. When quizzed about where he gets his inspiration from, he remarks that in the future he wants to “go away and be on my own again like I was growing up”. Thus, even this most half-hearted and fleeting of dalliances with fame, through the deliberately abrasive singles “Come to Daddy” and “Windowlicker”, was abruptly curtailed. Aphex Twin retreated into myth, where he has largely remained since.

“Selected Ambient Works 85-92”, now 25 years old, is probably the centrepiece of his cult, as well as a host of celebrity endorsements that he generally viewed with rueful distain. Pedestalized by the likes of Radiohead (who, typically, he wrote off as “really obvious and cheesy”), Björk and Mogwai, his complete antipathy towards stardom has not stopped a rabid fanbase from coalescing around him. Particularly, “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” gradually emerged as a keystone of the pompously named IDM (Intelligent Dance Music), which he also disparaged: “It’s basically saying ‘this is intelligent and everything else is stupid’”.

Indeed, “Selected Ambient Works 85-92”, in a classic act of Aphex subterfuge, isn’t really an ambient album, also providing a blueprint for modern electronic music and dance. Dreamy opener “Xtal” interlaces submersible keyboard chords, insistent off-beat hi-hats and murmured vocal samples, forming an alluring fusion of wistful ambience and mechanistic dance: a lethargic brother of the glitzy punch of acid house. “Green Calx” strays further, into squelching synth lines and impassively clinical beats. While remaining many miles from saccharine emotionalism, the album conjures up some strikingly emotive music from digital, inhuman elements—the choppy, percussive futurism of “Heliosphan” rifles through mossy chords and clattering junglist rhythms with barely a pause for breath.

Perhaps the defining feature of “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” is its vast influence. It’s difficult to imagine a Tycho, a Jon Hopkins or a Skrillex without Aphex Twin, and his increasingly eccentric sequels, such as 2001’s slipshod, sprawling “Drukqs”, revealed an idiosyncratic talent further honing his unusual aesthetic.  However, “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” is the windowsill from which these gnarled growths sprouted and remains to many the definitive Aphex Twin album. His playful contrarianism was encapsulated in an inevitably rare interview—ironically, in perhaps the only sincere moment of an otherwise brusque conversation, he interjected “I don’t like giving interviews. I don’t like disclosing too much.” By offering few public explanations for his work, he encourages it to be judged devoid of context, and this silence ultimately becomes its own context: his mystique deepens by the year. CO


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