When Richard D James last unveiled an album under his Aphex Twin moniker, it was in October 2001, with the world reeling from the September 11 terrorist attacks. Drukqs seemed on first listen to be wayward and unwieldy but it has since assumed a status as a major work, its very unpredictability surely a substantial influence on the likes of Zomby and Flying Lotus. The Erik Satie-esque Avril 14th even achieved its own curious ubiquity as soundtrack music. The world has changed immeasurably since then, with significant changes in the way we interact and communicate. The political response to those attacks and our communications have also become inherently intermingled in ways we could hardly have predicted.
It is hardly fair to expect the first Aphex Twin album in 13 years to offer some comment on any of this, but perhaps the most surprising feature of Syro is how comfortable and familiar it sounds. At least at first, there is relatively little of the sinister menace of Come To Daddy and Windowlicker (perhaps his two most well known recordings) and even James’ typical skittish distractions and playfulness take a while to kick in. In fact, there is a semi-nostalgic glow to the first section of Syro, as it seems to hint back at his earlier ‘ambient’ recordings. The rhythms are sometimes brittle and delicate, part of a larger framework rather than pushed mercilessly into the foreground. For an album heralded by the flying of a branded blimp over London, Syro initially sounds surprisingly unassuming. Whilst some listeners might be disappointed to discover that Aphex no longer sounds like the leader of a vanguard movement, it is arguable that this represents some of his most nuanced and fully developed music. Syro achieves something impressive by virtue of sounding ageless.
Syro is much less digressive and more easily digestible than Drukqs. The opening track and lead single minipops 67 (120.2) (source field mix) is broadly representative too, with its combination of deceptively sweet chiming sounds and heavily treated, alien-sounding voices. There is just enough characteristic Aphex weirdness going on here, but it now seems to sound oddly comforting and almost homely. Perhaps this is because this music is Aphex Twin’s calmest to date – whilst textures and rhythms do still shift, they do so in a much smoother, less twitch way. This might be most noticeable on the outstanding Xmas_Evet10 (120) (Thanaton 3 Mix), which takes a number of fascinating turns during its ten and a half minutes, yet manages to sustain a convincing synthesis and coherence.
As it progresses, Syro becomes more restless and the dreamlike haze of the first few tracks gives way to something more characteristically frenetic. The first subtle hint of this comes with the awkward funk of produk 29 (101) but it is much more explicitly signposted with 180db_ (130)’s sudden lurch into a four to the floor house beat. Circlont 6a (141.98) and Circlont 14 (152.97) feel like the centre of the album, although they are somewhat colder, and a little too detached to be described as its heart. Here, the mischievous side of Richard D James is unleashed, with intrusive squelchy bass synths and disorientating drum patterns in abundance. If not exactly moving, these tracks offer a timely reminder of the sense of fun and trickery inherent in Aphex Twin’s music. The almost-but-not-quite title track is delirious and irresistible, but it also has moments of disarming tenderness as well.
Whilst it is true that Aphex Twin’s delicate and more minimalist side is neglected on Syro, save for the piano kiss-off of aisatsana (102), there are plenty of signs of James maturing and developing as an artist. Anyone hoping for radical revolution will not find it here, but a more complicated quiet evolution does seem to be underway. If, as James as hinted, this is just the beginning of a new wave of Aphex recordings, it will be fascinating to see where this goes next.