Paul Woolford on Aphex Twin

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Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is simply one of my favorite albums of all time. Released in 1993, Selected Ambient Works emerged from a period of hybrids and rampant experimentalism, as techno had split off into hardcore and the advent of drum & bass was just around the corner. A master of hybrids himself, Aphex Twin (a.k.a. Richard D. James) used breakbeats in new and innovative ways, a quality Selected AmbientPart 1 shares with Innerzone Orchestra’s “Bug in the Bassbin” and Doc Scott’s N.H.S. EP–all key records that vastly shaped the landscape and marked this epoch of dance music as being one of frenzied research and development.

When Aphex Twin first came on the scene, a flurry of press activity followed. Many attempts were made to find out more about the completely fresh sounds coming from his equipment. He had pricked-up various scenesters’ ears with the Analogue Bubblebath EP, which eventually found its way to the A&R side of trail-blazing Belgian techno label R&S.

When James sent them more material their jaws must’ve dropped. Not only did he produce absolutely insane, killer, frantic breakbeat- and acid-driven techno of various hues, but he also made the most beautiful, fragile, lush, naïve, and truly visionary ambient-inspired pieces. The latter, which make up Selected Ambient Works 85-92, are a snapshot of an artist creating for the purest of reasons; James had not been signed to any label when that material was recorded, so his techniques were untainted by commerce, DJ-friendliness, or indeed any other concession. Just raw creativity. His methods of programming, particularly with regard to percussion, were so innovative, and his sounds were awe-inspiring.

It’s difficult to explain what the opening track “Xtal” does to me. As with most of the tracks on the album, it is drenched in a waterfall of reverb, and the multitude of emotions it stirs makes me think of being in the womb, cushioned from harm, coupled with a naïve child-like innocence. Yet it has this narcotic, strung-out undercurrent that gives it such an edge. And remember that some of these tracks were mastered from cassette. Yes, cassette tapes. In our age of obsession with loudness and audio clarity, it’s important to keep in mind that without amazing ideas, any art form is utterly vacant. In the coming weeks, the new incarnation of R&S will be reissuing Selected Ambient Works 85-92, so there’s no good reason that anyone with ears shouldn’t own a copy–or two.

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