Aphex Twin – Syro (Warp, 2014)

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For an artist that has been scarcely seen or heard from in the music world for the past 7 years, and not produced an album for 13 years under his main Aphex Twin alias, Richard James has set the Internet on fire with the surprising revelation of his hiatus breaking newest release Syro. Built out of a Frankenstein-ian collection of largely older material and more modern pieces of as-yet-unknown age, it’s an album that has certainly cleaved opinions of fans that have been clamouring for years for new material.

The opening duet of “minipops 67” and “XMAS_EVET10” have drawn criticism for both being tracks that have been circulating the Internet for years now, ever since their first live performances in 2007 and 2010 respectively; “where’s the new content?”, I hear the ingrates cry. Their modernity as compared to some of the other pieces in the album is clear though, with “minipops” focusing down on unusually Pop-centric sensibilities in its warped vocal lines and tinkling, Hip-Hop reminiscent piano sequences supplementing the playful, retro synth tickles that gently waft the track forwards. “XMAS_EVET10” meanwhile is a deliciously dark and twisting roadmap of Richard’s recent life and one of the finest displays of his emotional baggage that is referenced across the record, opening to squelching 303s and sad, detuned piano lines , desperately trying to climb out of its repressed hole in the pseudo-dance sequences of self-appeasing basslines at the 4 minute mark, before plateauing and outriding the recent instability in his life to settle into its habitual rhythms.

The emotional chaos of Richard’s life across this 13 year gulf can be found nearly everywhere on the album actually; “180db_” tries to suppress the memory of recent hardships as it blots the early album with its incongruous and aggressive pulses of distorted noise, staggering and buffeting in the middle of the dancefloor, the skittering lights the bobbing heads and hands and strobing light show burying reality for a brief moment. Later in the album the madly titled “s950tx16wasr10”, supposedly one of the tracks titled by his kids, alludes to the the difficulties and fear of raising children, a cathartic pinnacle of insane bpm Jungle beats brushing the edge of the unknown as it rises out of tempered, restrained instrumentation into a battlefield of experimental electronica. Precursor “PAPAT4″is another piece that raises the game as the album progresses, bringing out rapidfire Acid synth lines and insane breakbeats across the stuttering drum machine, whipping up flurries of anxiously excitable sound with incredible textural detail and nuance but of nauseating speed.

But it’s in a couple of really surprising tracks where I think the rawest content is; the title track “syro u47et8+e” opens to Richard’s wife muttering something in Russian, before slipstreaming into a sort of honeymooning, excitable barrage of funky electro grooves and 70s nostalgia, burdened with LFO bleeps and clipped croonings, troughing with guttural basslines before collapsing near the end in more minimalist, tired, but ultimately satisfied synth grooves that lean on the shimmering warbles of the bright backing drone. Similarly, “CIRCLONT6A” dances away its woes in Acid-cum-Chiptune beats that rise up out of a mire of squelchy 303s, climbing out of a drunken slide of, again, contesting LFO beeps and smeared synth walls with a big fat grin on its face.

But it’s truly the closer that puts the icing on the cake for me, probably because it’s the most surprising part of the entire record; the 5 minute Ambient tangent that unwinds on delicately repeating piano strokes and chirping birdsong of “aisatsana”, or Anastasia spelled backwards (the name of his second wife). It just feels like an oasis of calm and contentedness in a sea of increasingly rising worry and fear and unsureness, a bastion of love and reliability that puts an end to what was an escalating spiral of emotional disarray. It really is disarmingly beautiful, even if you don’t think it’s an appropriate closer.

I’ll be honest, even on the first listen I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this release, and that feeling has only grown with each passing listen. Sure, there’s a bunch of late-album Acid tunes that I don’t think are particularly strong and there’s still something to be desired in the production value department, but this works just incredibly well as a cohesive unit, spanning emotional multitudes (and literal time) with a surprising amount of variety, and ultimately finding a resolution in its end; this is an album that brings a little bit of late 90s Electronic charm into 2014 for the fans that have waited patiently for so long, and what a fantastic return to the music world it is.

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Trampique – Face To Face (Dark Clover, 2014)

Are you sure you’re ok? Do you want me to leave or something?

Alexandr Frolov of Volor Flex has had a difficult time of 2013 by the sounds of things; briefly putting aside his well known Volor Flex alias for the time being and producing his debut LP under Trampique (the title an allusion to his hometown), Face to Face is a downtempo, Future Garage chronicle of his year, month by month, and what a bleak affair it is. Evoking some of the same musical sensibilities as others in this vein like Clubroot and Burial, Frolov carves our journey through shuffling hi-hats, irregular rhythms and crooning synth drones. And forgive me but this album does call for a track by track breakdown, it’s just how the story unfolds.

“January” is stoic and quiet, burbling little muffled guitar pickings alongside its bleak expanses of reverb, the slow trudging and crunching through snow heard delicately rising out of the darkness. It’s a lonely and cold opening, and I want to say that things pick up but that’s not entirely true. “February”`s suppressed sub-bass lines are certainly more empowered in its initial sequences, a burst of energy at the start of the month, but it falls away to sparse, downtrodden piano tinklings and moaning winds as we’re left to contemplate alone. “March” welcomes the prospect of and imminent Spring in its shuffling beats and tolling electronica, pushing at a brisker pace in an attempt to breakaway from these Winter fugues.

Unfortunately Spring and Summer appear to be every bit as unrelenting; “April” gives us something of an insight into its darkness with its elongate drones and spoken word lines; “the reason I came back to town was for you”, they admit, “do you ever wonder if thing’s might have been different between us?”. For the first time the music really opens up to us and we get a slight insight into the melancholia being displayed. “May” rises out of the surf on its cruising idiosyncratic beats and shuffling rhythms; it’s grooving and driven but ultimately feels distracting and self-appeasing, that fun night out before the regret seeps in the following morning. And so it does in “June”, our female companion whispering out of the darkness with a faint air of concern. It synths flutter and roll before descending into a judgmental, crackling void of vague regret, of expectations not met.

Our microcosm continues to expand as “July” feels the need to clear its head, taking a night stroll through the still light evenings as it churns out the same idiosyncratic riff that underpins his life, but it’s slower and more tympanic, walking slowly and plodding along with its head bowed. “September” also has a similar feel to it in its later moments, albeit more sluggish and suppressed, buried under a drugged haze. “October”`s 2-step beats reignite some of “May”`s bombast and drive, although this time it’s entirely more headstrong and deliberate, advancing and empowering ourselves through its pulsating, flowing grooves. It’s reinforced in “November” with some more dubby moments supplementing the sparkly and lightweight electronica it’s paired with, fluttering arpeggios alongside the Burial reminiscent vocal fragments.

By the time “December” comes around we’re ready for the year to be over; conjoining some of the quiet minimalism of “April” and “January”, its empty xylophones tinkle like stars appearing in the enveloping night, its drones cool and resigned to their fate. “I have made a mistake”, she says, “you can’t take me”; a sad parting shot that, despite all we did and regardless of how proactive we were in the preceding months, our dreams become delicately crushed once more as she says no.

Frolov certainly shoehorns a great deal of time and emotional content into an album that’s only 30 minutes long, and that’s why I love this release; it’s short, bitesized and potent, not to mention deliciously introspective. It’s truly difficult to fault this record; I love this particular brand of Chillstep and Future Garage and I’ve been looking for something akin to this for quite a while; the fact that it tells such an intimate and varied story across its span is really just the icing on the cake for me. Check it out.

Christopher Willits – Opening (Ghostly International, 2014)

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Last year, fellow Ghostly International signee Scott Hansen of Tycho unveiled his latest LP Awake, much to my dissatisfaction. After becoming increasingly more band-oriented over the years and especially welcoming guitarist Dusty Brown into the fold, it felt like Tycho had abandoned much of his original electronic character in favour of bland percussion and over-represented guitar work, allowing his own synth lines to become crushed and inconsequential. Luckily, it seems like Christopher Willits has produced the album that I wished that Awake was in his gorgeously flowing Opening.

Opener “Vision” is the bleariest and perhaps the most replete piece of the record, opening us to the emerging beachscape through thick MIDI chorals (oft repeated through the album), softly chirping local wildlife and thick, blissful drone lines that demarcate the horizon with their soft light. It’s all very plain and unassuming; beautiful but quietly and selflessly introspective, slowly waking to the vista unfolding before us and evoking some sense of satisfaction. “Clear” continues this forward progression, gaining some more traction and allowing the synth riffs a little playful space. The pacing is still luxuriously slow, however, with only the merest hint of propulsion emanating from light percussion as the drones shift and migrate away from their centre of obfuscation.

It’s almost as if Willits feels like he’s letting things get the better of him and the music is perceived as getting away, since “Ground” appears to almost stem the tide of increasingly growing instrumentation by relegating the lightly riffing synth into the far backfield and neatly out of the way, squashing whatever remnants are left behind into a thickly smeared reverbed haze. Some suggestion of evolution and breakout is tantalisingly played out in a few shuffling beats and a rising wave of increasingly urgent drones but it’s caught and the track fades quickly. The suppression continues into “Now” as well, initially enveloped in a thin layer of glitch fuzz to supplement the crushed melodies and recurrent chorals. There’s a certain downtrodden wist detectable here as the piece unravels, metamorphosing into a bigger and more expressive mass of big synth drones and assistant but intermittent percussion; a jovial facade to the underlying melancholia, perhaps?

Or perhaps not, as “Connect” rolls in and takes things to sweet new heights, introducing the acoustic guitar with some clarity for the first time alongside some playful Tycho-esque synth flutters and chaotic but empowering miscellaneous electronica. It proceeds rather tentatively at first but slips into a beautifully intimate and emotionally probing guitar solo of exquisite delicacy that just makes the entire track, a soft profession of desire and relatedness sold through its organic motions, all coy and sensitive, hesitant. The vast and uncertain vista of followup “Wide” ruminates on whether or not that display of affection was such a good idea, spinning out many of the familiar synth riffs and smeared choral samples we’ve heard thus far into endless, repetitive oblivion, mulling over the same things again and again, fruitlessly. It’s a little dry but a nice pulse of instrumentation towards the end makes up for it, a little surge of hope amidst the fugue.

We’re finally taken out of “Wide”‘s misery in closer “Release”, the summation of all our confined emotional consideration through this album and its cathartic abandonment. It’s the satisfied yang to “Vision”‘s yin, a twilight hour closer that rests contented in deep drone minimalism and the recorded snippets of the surf washing against the inside of our mind, the tide of sleep returning after this productive day. Sweet, faint guitar work melts out of the sun-kissed lo-fi haze that sugar-coats the closer, a faint smile on our lips as the album sinks into sleep. It’s a fragile and minimal emotional journey we’re taken on through Opening, but one that absolutely has a clear storyline and a satisfying resolution, migrating effortlessly and imperceptibly through lonely and hopeless fugues before seeing the opportunity and acting upon it, being a little bold and throwing this dissatisfyingly lonely and resigned existence to the wind, saying goodbye to the early emotional insecurities and finally becoming comfortably in its own shoes.