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.

Croatian Amor – The Wild Palms (via nude selfie, 2014)

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Artists and audience rarely get to experience a real sense of intimacy with one another; the listener is often allowed a frank insight into an artist’s emotions as expressed through their music but it’s difficult for the artist to get anything in return. Croatian Amor’s Loke Rabhek recognised this one-sidedness and decided to only make his latest release available…if you send him a nude selfie. Admittedly I came by this album the cheat’s way through a leak but I like the notion of giving something more personal and intimate than money in reward for music, although at the same time the prospect does make me a little queasy knowing an unknown number of nudes are going to be stored away on Loke’s computer indefinitely.

Regardless, our personal display of intimacy is reciprocated with a certain quiet and sparse familiarity in the dismal, low-key synth lines, piano fragments and processed guitar that primarily create this record. Opener “The Madness of Summer” invokes some of the feelings of cabin fever and heavy, sleepless nights trapped in a muggy and humid lo-fi fuzz, our minds ticking over restlessly as we fret on how much sleep we’re going to get as the synth riff ticks over slowly and endlessly. Sleep finally seems to be granted to us in followup “Forever Wild Palms” as the pacing is crushed, with minimal piano tinklings draped in a fuzzy layer of subconsciousness welcoming us into the dark and uneasy dream world.

This disquieted sleep turns into the ethereal setting of “There Is Always Tomorrow”, with distal synth drones floating mysteriously through thick cassette fuzz. There’s a certain present hopelessness and darkness that’s allowed to manifest unchecked now that the conscious mind is no longer able to quell its worries and concerns, but there remains a lingering belief that whatever is wrong may still be righted in a new day. It’s perhaps one of the strongest pieces of the record alongside its companion “Everything Must Go”, which seems to contain something of a late 90s Psytrance or Progressive Electronic vibe in its destroyed but playful rhythms, teasingly migrating through the destruction to breach the surface as distorted echoes of their former selves, remnants of a time long since passed. It feels like a call to abandon the belief that the things we love are going to come back, a reminder that there exists a shinier future ahead but only waning nostalgia behind us.

The final two pieces of this short, 30 minute excursion are perhaps something of a weaker display than what we’ve seen thus far in my opinion; longest track of the album “Angels of the Afternoon” pushes the limits of repetitive acceptability that the other tracks dared not approach as it spins out admittedly suspenseful swirling fragments of processed guitar strums and piano snippets, but this heaviness and menacing synth drone fabric is allowed to continue without significant evolution for nigh-on 7 minutes and honestly I find it tiring. Luckily, closer “Only The Strongest” does pull things back a little bit in its very empowered movements of energised guitar riffs and jangling electronica, surfing the rush of the noisy crowd we hear peeking through the distortion at the beginning. It’s been a productive sleep, perhaps, since it feels like we’ve processed and digested something in doing so and overcome some particular internal emotional struggle, ready to face the tomorrow we dreamt about.

I love the uniqueness of this concept and the controversy it seems to have stirred up in people, with many questioning “artistic integrity”, others saying things like “true fans will buy the music regardless” and generally talking about how demeaning it all is. But I think it makes a pretty great point not just in regard to the disconnect between artist and listener but also how we’ve seemingly become fearful of our own bodies collectively, scared of having other people see them and not trusting others with images of it. Humans have been paying for sex for a long, long time, lots of people vehemently shun that as well as, apparently, using it to “pay” for music. A clever concept, and it’s not bad on the music front either.

 

Vhr-1.7 – Lost Angle (Eilean Records, 2014)

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Komatsu Kei, aka Vhr-1.7, is a Japanese sound designer, focused on researching sonic textures and “accidental intents”. I often have a hard time coming to grips with albums produced in a fashion that seems more focused on generating the greatest array of textures possible with, it seems like, little to no regard for how each of the pieces comes together as a whole. Lost Angle doesn’t quite conform to my admittedly heavy handed bias but it certainly feels like some important emotional facet and thematic concept has been lost here that makes it a little hard for me to love.

Opener “Lake Side” introduces us to this fascinatingly detailed textural world but ultimately unemotional cerebral experience, opening to delicate looped fragments of birdsong that become slowly crushed and warped as the piece progresses, marrying themselves with the crunching emergent drone as our little pleasant corner of the world becomes cloaked in night and turns into something wholly more eerie. It’s just a shame that it gets dragged out for so long; six and a half minutes in span where half that would have been sufficient. It’s here that the album also becomes separated into its two distinct and repeating halves; the first, the glowing drones and dense, oppressive, miscellaneous electronica, and the second, the sparse and quiet introspective moments of delicate synth ambience that yearning title track “Lost Angle” takes. The synth is jaded and oscillating, supplemented by thin waves of hopeful and ethereal drone as it seeks to remember what was once lost.

“Meon” is even more dark and crushed than its predecessor, rolling out in fragile meanderings of minimal synth movements and stuttering drone to fill the void. It feels like we’re under the microscope, gazing rapt at the molecules floating aimlessly about in the vacuum and occasionally nudging one another, slight disturbances throwing chaos into this tiny and delicate world. This sparseness is never invoked in the same capacity again, although there are some interesting counterparts; “Kalon” brings a moment of reprieve with processed wind and rain and passing car noise filling out its introspective moment, lazy guitar twangs quietly and gently rising through the wist. “Tope” is perhaps the last instance of contemplation, haunting a café afterhours and hearing the clatter of the preparation for tomorrow as it spins out almost clichéd piano tinklings from its smokey corner, something almost film noir reminiscent.

What’s left are the tracks with a little more oomph and bluster; “Occasion” turns “Meon”‘s microscopic delicacy around and disperses its fragility in its own rushing and luxurious dronescape, becoming kaleidoscopic in its glittering and fragmental tinklings, a deep moment deconstructed in a thousand slices with a thousand more possible outcomes. “Para” meanwhile brings back some of that suggestive menace of the opener but sends wailing and thickly distorted human voice up through the beacons of the urgent electronic foam above, their distress palpable but lost in space and time. The closer of “Meoncentric Theory” is perhaps my favourite piece of the record, however, carving out possibly the best structured and most evocative track thus far in a wash of thick drone and patterned, neo-psych reminiscent synthesiser, the slow and heavy handed macroscopic world interacting with the minute chaos of the microscopic, of God over Man.

It’s a decent enough release, to be sure, but I find it so hard to get into the groove and align myself with its emotional intents; everything is so coldly precise it really feels alienating and even in its most intimate moments it feels like we’re only allowed a fraction of a peek inside its disquiet mind. I realise it’s not necessary for an album to display a sense of continuity and overarching theme but I still like to feel that there’s a story I can latch onto, and with the lack of sympathetic moments here that thematic loss really hits home. I love a lot of singular moments on this, but as an album it really has a time of maintaining my attention.