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.

Burial – Rival Dealer (2013, EP)

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Where do I even start? It’s been some time since exploring Burial’s catalogue; Untrue has never been a favourite album of mine and I’ve been previously underwhelmed by some of his other EPs, but it would appear that something has finally clicked into place with his latest effort from the famous Hyperdub label in  Rival Dealer. Maybe it’s simply a matter of right place, right time, but Rival Dealer hits all the spots and more, and I just can’t get enough.

The title track opens this three piece EP with a 10 minute timespan and good god is it incredible. “I’m gonna love you more than anyone” is sung through the already empowered melody, a dark synth lead piece the likes of which I’ve never heard before. It sounds like tortured strings singing through a thick drum machine bassline, lo-fi fuzz and snippets of mechanical noise, a stuttering and staccato performance that evokes images of some film noir chase scene. The rushes of sound, the deeply processed vocals, even the somewhat imperfect nature of the mixing, are all perfect. Suddenly it melts away at around the halfway mark in a pulse of disturbed electronica and switches into its second phase, one where 4/4 beats are king and the beats become less slippery and coy and more abrasive and progressive. Even this falls away as we enter the closing minutes of the track and it’s perhaps the most beautiful so far. Ambience reigns supreme in this slow motion melancholic period of grace, delicate female vocals confessing that they’ve “been watching you” through the distortion, and that “this is who I am”. The whole piece is also about acceptance of the relinquishment of a relationship, the realisation that things can’t go on forever, especially in the final phase of sung vocals.

“Hiders” is an unusual piece but somehow manages to work everything together. Fans of Burial might very well not be a fan of this, significantly more Pop influenced, piece; there’s a peacefulness and even euphoria here in the glowing walls of running water and shimmering synth drone sequences, the light crackling of fire and the jangling of jewellery. It kicks up the pace in the latter half as it moves away from these slower movements into a more uptempo number with the drum machine setting the cheesy but satisfying rhythm. It’s happy, joyous, although it leads darkly into the final track “Come Down To Us” with tracts of murky noise and stuttering glitch.

The closer then is ushered in and presented as an inherently dark number is a complex leviathan of mixed sounds and emotion. Sometimes capitalising on the moody drones evoked in the title track it creates expansive vistas of hopeful sound, other times slipping into slinky sitars to give a slightly more off-kilter feel that, coupled with deep basslines, generates an inherently more creepy atmosphere. Vocals are a huge component of this piece, often times being used more as a textural fabric rather than as clearly defined voices, but they set the tone and message of this piece. “Don’t be afraid” is repeated frequently in an alarming voice; “this is the moment where you see who you are”, and an important speech by transgender filmmaker Lana Wachowski at the very end all make this a track about embracing not only yourself but the opinions and views of other people, accepting that we cant please everyone but we can be happy within ourselves so long as we accept who we are. The final phase in particular is an evocative sequence of sultry percussion, beautiful vocal soars and expansive synths that overcome the hardships of our darker moments.

It’s so astonishingly well paced and well constructed it’s really difficult not to get sucked into this release. The vocals are repeated but are mixed up enough throughout to give a real sense of personal evolution and keep the pieces fresh, and their processing matches the tone of the tangentially evolving melodies perfectly. I think the themes of sexuality and personal acceptance are certainly an important facet of this release but for me it’s more the journey than the message; I simply cannot stop listening to it. The way he juxtaposes the paralysing dark sequences with those concerned voices against the joyous, light filled movements is simply beautiful to behold, and if you’re in any way a fan of Dubstep, Garage, Techno, Ambient or all of the above, I would highly recommend checking it out.

You can listen to all the tracks for free at Hyperdub’s Youtube Page

Emptyset – Recur (2013)

How apt it is that an album presenting itself as one of Glitch and in particular Industrial Techno has been appropriated the name Recur by its creator; recur is defined as something that happens repeatedly or occurs again, or even as a memory that is brought back to one’s attention. This theme is extremely powerful throughout the release and is brought to our ears in the most attention grabbing way possible.

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Opener “Origin” warms up slowly, a growling hum acclimates the eardrums first as the memory or event is instigated slowly fading in and out to be replaced by equally cyclic rolling glitch stutters in between, something of a verse-chorus-verse structure if you can call it that. On the face of things it doesn’t really appear to be an evolving, progressive piece, but slowly each of the distinct facets becomes slightly more elongated and abrasive with each passing. It’s clear that this is going to be a dark and heavy album right from the off, so it’s time to crank up the volume a few notches and settle in for a hair raising ride.

“Fragment” begins to settle us into the more rhythmic side of things as we were promised, flinging heavy basslines alongside abrasive, staccato synths. Rushes of noise rush to fill the voids between each blat of the bassline, an intake of electronic breath, a rush of buzzing digital air. It’s sparse and dark and I like it a lot. It drops towards the end and we’re sucked into “Disperse”, introduced on a wave of soft drone before that infectious growling bassline comes back. It’s a huge component of this album and for anyone who doesn’t like the repetitious melodies of Techno you’re probably not going to like this a whole lot. “Disperse” is a whole lot more meandering, more syncopated than the previous tracks; like intermittent pulses of memory separated by seas of neurons the glitch is replaced by washes of distal drone air, the dead space between. Once the edges of the memory have been reached the track simply fades out into the void.

“Order” is perhaps my favourite track of the album; a repetitive synth note brings the track in almost like an alarm or klaxon, and we can’t say we weren’t warned when the vast glitch-bass arrives. It’s smothering in its thick, slow oscillations, grinding along relentlessly with absolutely no intention of stopping. It rolls along for a brief stint, kicks up at a trough as the notes become smeared together in an up-pitched spike of activity and continues as though nothing happened. Despite it’s regularity and homogeneity, there’s still something fascinating in the order, not to mention something distinctly chaotic as to how it’s presented to us. And it’s not unchanging; although across its 6 minute duration the climax is subtle it is present before it barrels out at the end to tumble into it’s yang “Absence”, which could not be further from the 6 previous minutes of music if it tried. The organised madness of matter in the former makes way for, well, nothing at all in the latter, a soundscape about as devoid of life as you can imagine, cruising along in the long night filled with a low roar, a stuttering distant drone that we can feel slowly rising to the surface in an ominous rush of sound, like headlights cutting through fog. Just as it’s about to the moment’s diffused and it slips away once more.

But it’s high time we brought some beats back into the fray isn’t it; “Lens” is on the case as flickers and flutters of synths come cutting through like searchlights, warping and refracting through the glass, altering the beam strength and distribution. On and on it goes but its search is fruitless but as it segues effortlessly into “Instant” where there’s a brief peak of attention right at the start in an alarming pulse of electronic warning; what was missing has now been found and the track gets into a heavy rhythm that sounds almost like footsteps marching onwards in acquisition. It stops intermittently to catch its breath, a swirl of white noise, before the heavy bass notes come cracking down again as they pave a way through the quagmire of our mind. The title track finally appears, a striking succession of hammering beats and glitch stutters that crash through nearly continuously, like the ticking over of a car’s engine we’re desperately trying to restart. Over and over again we try, hammering the steering wheel in vain mindlessly, pointlessly, but on and on we go expecting something to change or elicit a different response only to be continually disappointed.

But we reach it at last, “Limit”, whereupon we realise the fruitlessness of our actions in the frustrated, pent up energy of the drone swathes and grinding glitch that fill the final track. There’s no more actions to repeat, no more memories to replay or regurgitate, only the end.

It’s a brash, bold album to be sure, and it feels like it clocks in at much longer than it’s relatively accessible 35 minute duration, but it gets what it needs done. In fact it’s perfectly timed, Emptyset hasn’t tried to push his luck with the repetitive, cyclic beats and it pays off. The whole album is a surprising introspection at the unnecessary actions that we fill our lives with; the sily regrettable memories that we choose to echo endlessly, cringing over embarassing moments for example. This is something pretty unsurprising, but there is a darker side that questions the habitual and the rituals we repeat every day like waking, working, eating, going to bed. Endless cycles day in day out that we become locked into and fearful to escape from, not wanting to disturb the comforting placidity of regularity. Emptyset’s got the right idea; sometimes someone needs to say something really big and hard to accept to make a stand, and that’s exactly what this album does.