Essential albums: Aphex Twin

At its most accessible, Selected Ambient Works volume II has an engaging sense of harmony with billowing, delicate wafts of synthesisers, light percussion patterns and fragile melodies. At its most challenging, it wraps atonal techno bleeps and burps around muted percussion with such insistent repetition that you'll find yourself either hypnotised or running screaming from the room.

artist: 
Aphex Twin

country of origin: 
UK

style(s):
Ambient techno, electronica

decades active:
90's - 20's

essential ambient releases:

  • Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992, Apollo)
  • Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994, Warp/Sire)

Reviewed by Mike G

The mischievous, enigmatic Englishman Richard James is the ultimate cult electronic figure in the dance music firmament. His output over 30+ years as Aphex Twin is enormous, controversial and varied. For ambient fans, these two early albums - both strange excursions in 90's ambient techno aka IDM - remain his enduring classics. They are compelling and distinctive, quite far removed from the lusher sound that typified a lot of Artificial Intelligence-style British techno like Beaumont Hannant, B12, Speedy J and The 7th Plain during the genre's first wave from the early to mid-90's.

Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992) is the more lively and beat-focused of the two. Its textures are strikingly original, with many of its sounds coming from modified analogue synths, boxes and gadgets that James built himself at home. First released on Belgian label R&S Records ambient imprint Apollo, it made a huge impact in the UK and Europe. It showed that not only could the sounds of dance music be supremely chilled but could also be created without reliance on unoriginal - and often illegal - samples that featured so heavily in early house, techno and breaks. R&S founder Renaat Vandepapeliere has remained unequivocal in his praise, telling Electronic Sound magazine in 2013: "[The first] Selected Ambient Works as a whole is such a beautiful album. It set the standard, it’s the blueprint for ambient [techno] ever since. And he made it when he was 16 years old, 18 years old. Can you imagine? For a young kid to come up with such music? For me, it’s his best work ever...you have artists and you have Artists and here is an Artist with a big A. Still today, he’s very intelligent, very into what he does, no compromises."

Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994) is a rather different beast, far more minimal. Yet Aphex Twin's popularity at the time - and that of ambient dance music in general - was enough to send it to number #11 on the UK album charts. That's astonishing for an album that is positively avant-garde in places. The minimalist ethic of earlier ambient composers like Brian Eno is clearly at work, with James cunningly developing his pieces so that subtle changes become like major events. At its most accessible, it has a mystical sense of harmony with billowing, delicate wafts of synths, light percussion patterns and fragile melodies. At its most challenging, it wraps atonal techno bleeps and burps around muted percussion with such insistent repetition that you'll find yourself either hypnotised or running screaming from the room. But who says ambient has to be relaxing?

With a few notable exceptions, James' preferences generally veer towards the tougher, harder and industrial end of electronica, territory to which his Aphex Twin alias soon returned after these albums. He's not one to repeat himself, and this era was historically unique in so many ways, which makes it improbable we'll ever see the likes of his Selected Ambient Works releases again.

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