On the afternoon of September 7th, two blocks North from the roar of Wrigley Field, a couple hundred strangers lined around the block at SmartBar, waiting for the ‘special listening opportunity’ of Aphex Twin’s first album in 12 years. Many were intoxicated, many introverted, and perhaps all were wondering just what the hell ‘special listening opportunity’ meant. Despite the rather cryptic lime green emails stating the time and place of the event (and that no mobile phones would be allowed in the venue), not another detail was divulged.
The attendees were chosen lottery-style, after the announcement was made a week prior that there would be eight exclusive listening opportunities around the world. The catch was, those with the golden tickets had to go alone. There was no “+1.” Adding to the unfamiliar tone, most everyone were strangers to each other. A concert experience with no phone to hide ourselves away from the world? What was this, the 90s? Cubs fans stumbling by gawked at the strange milieu of concertgoers. Who were these several hundred silent weirdos slouching around at 4 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon?
The general murmur in the line was that the event was to be some sort of light show. This was corroborated at the entrance of the club, where a SmartBar employee sat flicking around on his iPad. Pouring over the email from Warp Records, the man was audibly nervous about synchronizing the music and lights perfectly. With detailed instructions on the synchronization process, the email basically translated to: Don’t fuck up. It ended with the line: “Aphex is watching.” Upon hearing this, everyone in the immediate vicinity laughed, but as they shuffled down the steps to the dim underground bar, a few of them looked around the ceilings for cameras, some undoubtedly asking themselves, “Well, is he?”
Other than a vague idea of a light show, no one knew what to expect. People didn’t know where to stand, let alone which direction to stand in. With no DJ to get a spot for, and with no buffet of designer drugs to consume, many people looked to the bar to get properly smashed before the show. Soon enough, the lights turned off, the fog machine started bellowing (and never stopped), and the bone-shaking bump finally began.
Immediately maximalist and complex, Aphex Twin’s new single (and the first track on the album), Minipops 67 [120.2](source field mix) is perhaps more Windowlicker than DrukQs. Starting with a fast, dirty percussion beat that would surely make Thom Yorke jealous, the song soon sinks into a heady cult-bump full of stuttering synths, heavy bass, and a little chanting. Right off the bat, Syro establishes itself as the perfect music to play LOUD at your next sacrificial offering.
The fog machine was basically on blast throughout the whole show, clouding everyone in their own misty bubbles to reverberate in. Colorful lights began piercing the dense air, and the Syro symbol began to eerily project on the front wall, green and morphing. Strobe lights began blasting, and those who didn’t collapse suddenly found themselves in that bizarre club at the beginning of The Matrix. This ‘strangers in the fog’ vibe, mixed with a touch of light asphyxia, and convulsions of creepy flashing lights, built upon the disorienting experience of the show and its music.
The album has a very distinct sound, somewhere between Dark Wave and industrial nightmare, where Freddy Krueger could be lurking around every corner. Much of the music plays like true soundscapes, where it feels like Aphex Twin is tapping into some dance-nightmare-analog-world and is taking his time to explore the realm. That is to say, many of the songs do away with familiarities halfway through and evolve into something else entirely. Midway through the album, tracks begin to sputter out of control and fall apart into chaos, creating a feeling as if the whole world was falling apart. Like ‘Sudden Death’ mode on an old Nintendo game, these 8-bit apocalypse moments serve as some of the album’s very highest points (or at least, aside from the last track, it was certainly when the audience was cheering the loudest).
The sprawling song titles on top of the extremely nuanced sound (not to mention that some of these tracks have been in the making for seven years) give the music an effect that each song has been heavily reworked. With titles like “XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix),” “fz pseudotimestretch+e+3,” and “PAPAT 4 (pineal mix),” it leaves the listener stranded in some kind of unfamiliar transient zone, where it’s unsure if these songs are remixes, originals, or maybe some kind of possessed html code.
The thumping maximalist complexity of Syro contrasts interestingly with its rather ugly, stripped-down, un-magical album cover. Reading like a computer page printout, the white cover breaks down the title of each track and its length before mapping out the costs for advertising, promotion team hiring, packaging, bandwidth, and a host of other gratuitous associated costs. This is pretty cool for those of us dying to know how much the ‘Hotel in Seattle for album playback meeting’ costs, as well ‘CD-Rs for UK radio promotion, ‘ and ‘Refreshments for NYC listening party,’ (Hey, Aphex, where were those in Chicago?).
Basically, this tongue-in-cheek bullshit album cover suits the record perfectly, as both the music and its cover serve to catch the listener off guard. Having said that, the ‘special listening opportunity’ is also part of a series of steps to defamiliarize listeners, to put them in spaces that are elusive and uncertain. Instead of grounding the musical experience off of an epic album cover, listeners are able to use this white space to create more of the music landscape in their minds. Aphex Twin is obviously hyper-aware of his audience (this is evident on almost every track of the new album), so why not fuck with them? I mean, this is from the dude who announced his new album from the deep web, who advertises with mysterious blimps and crop circles. The guy has been making album after album in privacy, sharing them with no one, like some crazy J.D. Salinger type (DJ Salinger, anyone?).
The last track of the album, Aisatsana, is a moment of catharsis, and about as beautiful as anything the artist has ever done. Reminiscent in spirit of the Pink Floyd track, Outside The Wall, Aisatsana is composed of a simple, graceful piano rhythm, birds chirping, and an insect hum. This wistful respite from the buzz and whir tech-horror which precedes it truly creates an effect of having crawled out of snapping, industrial jaws. After an intense mechanical struggle, a meadow from a machine.
Ultimately, Syro is a fantastic record; simultaneously fun, creepy, nuanced, and loud as hell. Although some of the haters may complain that Aphex isn’t breaking any new ground with Syro, I’d argue that you couldn’t find a better electronic album from the past five years. It’s true that the music sounds like it was born out of the 80s-90s, but that’s part of the aesthetic of the artist, and always has been. Those looking for some kind of 3D Printer reinvention of Aphex Twin will unfortunately be at a loss. For those searching for a track-by-track breakdown of the album, factors such as choking fog, strobe lights, and innards-shaking bass prevented such overscrupulous aspirations. It’s an album that’s meant to catch you off guard, to put you in a space of danceable uncertainty. Get ready.
Be sure to toss out the fake album leaks and actually hear Aphex Twin’s new album, Syro, available September 22nd, or maybe the 23rd. The guy hasn’t told anyone yet.