Luke Haines (the Auteurs, Black Box Recorder) Talks Aphex Twin’s Syro

Maybe Aphex Twin is a sphinx without a riddle. Maybe pop can't really sound new again. Maybe Syro is best heard with the volume down low.

Every weekday, the Talkhouse runs one piece by one musician, about one album.  That’s about 250 pieces a year, and we still didn’t get to all the best that 2014 had to offer.  So we asked some of our favorite Talkhouse writers to share their thoughts about a few of the more notable albums from last year.
— Michael Azerrad, Talkhouse editor-in-chief

There’s an old Syd Barrett quotation from one of his last interviews: “I’m full of dust and guitars,” mused the troubled former Pink Floyd frontman in response to an enquiry after his state of mind. Oddly, I’m reminded of this as I fight my way through Syro, the painstakingly busy 2014 elpee by Richard James aka Aphex Twin. Well, I’m almost reminded. If Syd had said, “My house is full of dust and guitars,” he would have been describing my own domestic chaos perfectly. For the first thing that occurs is that I live in the wrong sort of house to immerse myself successfully in Mr. Twin. A high-tech bunker floating in fucking space is what you need. What I have is a no-tech Edwardian mansion block crammed to the gills with antiquary, rock & roll and dust. The only thing I am floating in is cat-shit. Minimalist it is not. Maximalist it surely is.

Back in the early ’90s, us wee boys with skinny waists, Chelsea boots and brand-new guitars (bought with record company advances) were a little bit frightened of Aphex Twin. He was, if not the future, then at least the mod-con present. Us guitar boys knew we had one foot in the past, with our jangle and classic-rock song structures. And Richard James knew all too well that we were a little bit afraid of him. He would do “remixes” of “indie bands.” It was total fucking obliteration, mutually assured destruction: your groovy little pop song that sounded a bit like Freddie and the Dreamers deconstructed into a nine-minute Alpine-electro-foghorn-drone-inside-a-washing-machine. Thanks for that. He also had the mythology — he was born in a Panzer tank. Liked shooting down UFOs with an air pistol. Owned 5,000 nuclear-armed tractors and he recorded all his albums on a wristwatch. Journalists bought into this myth hook, line and plonker, for they, too, were a little bit afraid. Was this the real thing or was it the Emperor’s new ring modulator? Have you ever read a negative Aphex Twin review? (You have now.)

What I really want to know is: what am I meant to do to this music? You can’t dance to it, you can’t sit still to it — I tried that and it’s like being shot to death with a machine gun loaded with Smarties. I considered taking drugs to it, but I only had catnip in the house — and I’m saving that for a very special occasion. Tracks have those annoying, half-assed song titles like “Preset 7,” “Eventide,” “Envelope Filter — Resonating 8s,” “Original Juno 6.” (OK, I’ve made these up, but there is a track called “4 bit 9d api+e+6”). A track called “Minipops 67” sounds not unlike something from Cluster’s 1974 broken-drum machine classic “Zuckerzeit,” the difference here being that nothing sounds very broken. It’s all quite shiny, with ironic jazz-funk synth sounds, a bit like Daft Punk with attention-deficit disorder and without the choons. The jazz-funk motif keeps on creeping back. Then the penny drops: Richard James is a secret jazz-funker (hahaha) and he has made a muso album. However, even the most noodley jazzer might concede that there are perhaps a few too many notes on this album. Syro is basically a techno Average White Band, or worse (worse!), a Weather Report for the 21st century. Just.

And that is the problem: for all the mythologising and the attention-diverting technique of releasing via the “Darknet,” the eagerly awaited comeback by the Aphex Twin doesn’t sound like the future.

“But hold on!” screams the Greek chorus of Aphex apologists. “It’s the first Aphex album in 13 years and he’s back on aging hipster label Warp Records.”

“Hold on,” I shout back. “Why does anyone care what record label he’s on anymore? That’s so 20th-century. Aphex Twin could release a record on Birds Eye Fish-Finger Records, for all I care.”

The point is, this offering doesn’t sound like the present. (The blessed Sleaford Mods provide that.) It actually sounds like the past of 20 years ago — the early ’90s, when recording technology reached an ap(h)ex that hasn’t yet been, and may never be superseded. As music recombines its own archives, the only things ploughing into the future are the ever-changing formats in which music is made available, gradually but surely turning the “product” into ephemera.

So does it matter that pop music can’t really sound new again? Probably not. As an art form it arrived fully formed. As long as you have something to say and a hyperactive imagination on love, life or art, then what’s the problem? The problem for Richard James is that he doesn’t really have anything to say, and that is his stock in trade. In previous albums there was supposedly something to decode, but on Syro the game is up. Before he releases another album, Aphex Twin had better hope there is another subversive new format to shroud his art in. (Spoiler alert: there will be.)

Whisper it: this album is actually a bit boring. Richard James has made just another Aphex Twin album. An Aphex Twin album that could have come from the 1990s — and isn’t the very notion of an “album” just a bit old-hat for a trailblazer (or trailing blazer) like Aphex Twin? Hell, maybe he should have just made a folk album on a two-bob five-string guitar.

I find the best way to listen to Syro is to just turn it the fuck down. Then the fussy production becomes less irritating and the album starts to work as background music. But that shouldn’t be the way with Aphex Twin, should it? Perhaps I don’t need that high-tech bunker floating in fucking space after all. “I really should do some hoovering,” I think to myself, as a dusty book falls on my head.

Luke Haines is an English musician and writer. He has recorded under the name of the Auteurs and Black Box Recorder. His books include the bestselling Bad Vibes – Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall. His latest solo album, Smash The System, is out on Cherry Red Records on October 7, 2016. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter and his website.