Treble 100: No. 56, Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album

Aphex Twin Richard D. James Album Treble 100

Aphex Twin will not read this. Richard D. James finds any and all press entirely irrelevant. The legendary, tank-owning, enigmatic producer would rather make music than sincerely engage with “the industry.” He clearly notes his distaste for doing interviews and making records in this 1993 interview, explaining why he does them: “I do it to earn a living so I don’t have to get a job so I have more time to make music.” Richard D. James has always made music for himself and his friends. 

After the release of his two landmark Selected Ambient Works compilations and the sawtoothed softness of …I Care Because You Do, Aphex Twin was a household name. All three of those records charted in the UK, as did Classics, the 1995 collection of James’ first three EPs and odds and ends. That same year he scored the groundbreaking and surreal, Carl Lewis-featuring Pirelli tire commercial, all while more or less bursting the underground techno bubble. James was releasing music under a slew of monikers, collaborating with like-minded musicians such as Mike Paradinas (μ-Ziq), and was already experimenting with what sounds like primitive AI vocal manipulation. By 1996, it was clear Aphex Twin was the one inventing, subverting, and setting trajectories in electronic music, technology, and art. 

If you’re not counting the Girl/Boy EP, which was released as a batch of bonus tracks in the US, Richard D. James Album was Aphex Twin’s most approachable statement up to that point. The record’s defined rhythms and explicit song structures find James sanding down some of the harsher points made on ICBYD. Its sharpest moments mirror its rough homespun edges and uneven mix, the music at odds with itself once again. Aphex Twin’s dual nature is built in, the ultimate balance between humor and sincerity, a playful seriousness. For James, sometimes a tongue in cheek is a heart on a sleeve, is two crossed fingers behind his back.

Despite Aphex Twin’s consistent meddling, RDJA is a clear meditation on pop music with plenty of hooks to hang onto. There’s an approachable melodic warmth taking cover from the percussive hailstorm on “Girl/Boy Song” and “4,” both of which were used for Bank of America and Special Olympics television ads, respectively. Clear pop throughlines galvanize tracks like “Peek 82454201” and “Fingerbib,” while James’ new affection for triplet-powered drill n’ bass pushes the record’s exaggerated rhythms to the limit. 

Aphex Twin’s breakbeat experimentation can serve as a beautiful nuance to what are essentially traditional pop structures. There are verses, bridges, choruses, even vocals (“To Cure a Weakling Child”) and orchestral arrangements (“4,” “Girl/Boy Song,” “Fingerbib”) scattered across RDJA. Though doubtful James considers himself a “composer,” Alarm Will Sound’s orchestral cover might convince listeners otherwise. In the wake of Richard D. James Album, fans have made mashups of Aphex Twin with Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift that not only serve as testament to the pop energy behind these songs but to the visionary production and textures serving as a template for today’s pop music. Look no further than superstars like Charli XCX and Rosalía, the meteoric rise of hyperpop, the massive mainstream wave of electronic music in the late aughts and early 2010s, and the current breakbeat revival. Aphex Twin’s hand is a part of virtually every bleep and bloop of the last 30 years, with a lot of that influence tracing back to RDJA.

Digging into the tracklisting, Richard D. James Album can at times feel like a collection of singles seeking to capture and recapture a listener’s attention, though the sequencing of the first five songs is remarkably fluid. Opener “4” serves as the foolproof hook, while “Cornish Acid” feels like being strung out and dead lost in a warehouse rave. By using what sounds like a modified Roland TB-303, the second track’s quicksand house captures listeners like flies in a sugar trap. The song’s anxious, meandering melody is like turning another darkened corner of an endless labyrinth, while the sputtering percussion falls out of step like an auditory hallucination. “Peek” begins to make sense of things with a more discernible, verse-chorus-verse framework before “Fingerbib” breaks through the acid fog and reintroduces the album’s signature strings, which were played and sampled by James on a violin he picked up at a garage sale. 

It’s interesting to see the Cornish-hill-referencing “Carn Marth” having the second lowest Spotify streams, considering it’s one of the most rewarding listens on the record. The song’s three-part formation is seamless and satisfying, especially the final percussive turn into its plate-smashing, brick-wall conclusion. “To Cure A Weakling Child” pivots into Richard D. James’ knavish back half where the timeless “Yellow Calx” and “Girl/Boy Song” are sandwiched between the more polarizing “Logan Rock Witch” and the spritely “Goon Gumpas,” a track which James thinks sounds like an insurance ad. 

It’s easy to understand the aversion to “Goon Gumpas” and especially “Logan Rock Witch,” but I’ll go to bat for the record’s perfectly didgeridoo-ed finale every time. It’s a house-of-mirrors harlequin of a song and the ideal closer; a fantastic waterslide out the trapdoor of an excellent album. It also feels like another gag, at times more like a prank. Who knows? Maybe James is having fun knowing exactly who he might be turning off. 

Richard D. James’ intentionally polarizing and mischievous relationship with audiences only seemed to attract more attention to his revolutionary craft. His early DJ sets were purposely repellent, but even his infamous sandpaper set got him booked across the pond. Aphex Twin’s puckish approach to music-making in the public image has only enthralled listeners, leading to rumors and conspiracies circulating in forums and YouTube comment sections. You’ll almost always find an unverified theory posted under an Aphex Twin b-side or rare interview, and it’s at this point where nothing feels 100 percent verifiable but almost everything is surely a little bit of a ruse. 

There’s satisfaction in thinking one may be “in” on the joke, but Aphex Twin always gets the last laugh, so it’s best to just laugh along. There’s an Aphex Twin song for everyone, and—at 33 minutes—RDJA is a compact offering of some of James’ finest drill-heavy material. 

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