An eccentric musician balances rigid structure and frenzied chaos on new album.


There was a very specific reason I wanted to listen to Syro, Aphex Twin’s first album in 13 years. It was not because Richard D. James, the twisted, crooked smile behind Aphex Twin, has been pushing electronic music to new places since the early ’90s, nor was it because of a deep love of his music. No, I wanted to listen to this album because I had never listened to Aphex Twin. Sure, I recognized the name, and I knew that an Aphex Twin song is sampled in one of my favorite songs of this decade (“Blame Game” by Kanye West), but that’s as far as my knowledge of the project extended. So as James came back from a long hiatus, I listened to Syro with fresh ears. And it won me over.

Each track on this record is dense and sprawling, but all of them are accessible. Take the opening track, “minipops 67 [120.2] ,” a great, fun-to-listen-to track made up of clicking, driving drums, jagged but airy synths, and beautifully incomprehensible vocals. This track is no great challenge to listen to, but over the course of its five-minute running time, I lost track of where it began and where it was going. This is its true virtue: it unravels organically. No two measures contain the exact same material, but every drum hit, plodding synthesizer, and drum program comes from somewhere.

Aphex Twin is often viewed as a sort of mad genius, something that has turned me off from trying to approach his work. Yet while there is a crafty madness to these twelve track’s garbled vocals and bending sounds, the predominant element of this description is not the “mad,” but the genius. As a fan of electronic music, I haven’t heard much of anything like this, music this propulsive and this patient. “XMAS_EVET10 [120][thanation3mix]” could not have earned its 10-minute run time without James’ beautiful, airy jazz drum line underscoring the impossibly dexterous synth bass line, or the wordless vocal coda. Furthermore, in lesser hands, the MIDI organ sounds of “produk29 [101]” would just be cheesy, but the atmosphere built by the heavy drums and synth bass just make it unsettling as hell.

These songs are defined by their craftiness, their sonic exploration, and their deep groove and funkiness. “180db_[130]” should be all but unlistenable—it is built around an obnoxiously loud, tuneless pattern—but, oddly enough, there is humor and levity to be found in that sound, as the pounding drums make it not only tolerable, but danceable. Same goes with “CIRCLONT14 [152.97][shrymoming mix],” which begins in a place of atonality, and then slowly builds into a hard-hitting and strangely beautiful middle, filled with stuttering melodic patterns, drums that sound like they are bending speakers, and ethereal vocal sounds. These songs are complex and challenging, but they are far from difficult to listen to.

The peak of the album’s delicacy is the solo-piano finale, “aisatsana [102].” As “aisatsana” is “Anastasia” spelled backwards, this is the only intelligible track title in all of Syro. The song itself is unlike anything else that came before it, a delicate piece of expressionist piano centered around the faint ambient sounds of birds chirping and the hiss of the piano itself. The track slowly, gracefully weaves its piano lines together into something warm and abstract. It is the perfect ending to an album whose purpose is to remind people just who they are listening to; it concludes not with a bang or a whisper, but with a sonic hug.

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