Aphex Twin is the unequivocal master of modern electronic music. This much we know already. But studio albums have rarely been his thing. Selected Ambient Works 85-92 was a magnificent debut — arguably game-changing — but that was a quarter of a century ago. The few records released since then have been drastically influential, but each suffering from similar issues of length, filler, and genuine instances of bewilderment. In the middle of these releases, however, sits Richard D. James Album, which endures no such pain. This is a compact record; 30 minutes of mesmerising electronica that is both pleasingly disorientating and emotionally stirring. James strikes a balance that was previously left unfound (and eventually abandoned again), which results in one of the most rewarding releases in his entire catalogue of works.
Whilst I wouldn’t describe Richard D. James Album as accessible, I do think it’s one of the best places to start for potential Aphex Twin newcomers. There is a strong sense of melody throughout, which, combined with the smooth and softened synthesizer pads, often provide a quite striking contrast to the schizophrenic beats. Opening track “4” is as good example as any, blending these elements with a wonderful string arrangement that carries a surprising amount of emotional depth. Electronic music can sometimes be found wanting in this department, particularly that of the ‘90s, but James has rarely struggled with such an problem. Even “To Cure A Weakling Child”, with its frenetic drum programming and peculiar vocal samples, renders a sense of youthfulness and nostalgia. “Logan Rock Witch” is a curious closing track inhabited by absurd sound effects, and somehow James pulls it off. It’s as though he knows he earned the right to be silly in the records final moments. It’s weird and rather wonderful, which is essentially Aphex Twin in a nutshell. Whilst I wouldn’t rank it as his best work, Richard D. James Album is wholly recommended to anyone looking for an entry point into the abrasive side of IDM.8 10
Favourite tracks // 4
Logan Rock Witch
Of all things, this reminded me of our experience with Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. Listening to this was far more relaxing than it had any business being; there’s a tranquility to even the most restless arrangements. Richard D. James Album is kooky to be sure, but it’s also assured. It’s confident in a way that totally grounds everything you hear, from drum machines to slide whistles. The ambient backdrop of the record is clean and immersive, and that creates an ideal foil for Aphex Twin’s more abrasive qualities — the jungle and breakbeat stuff. The space between those extremes is vivid and playful, like the Minecraft soundtrack on a good acid trip.
The production is top notch, really unobtrusive. It’s lovely listening to an album and feeling so close to the music. Richard D. James Album as a whole holds true to that sense of intimacy, if in a slightly intense, see-the-cover-for-reference kind of way. The album’s barely 30 minutes long, and that’s fine by me. It’s a runtime that lends itself perfectly to the punchiness of the delivery and the intensity of its more acidic turns. Without being totally swept up by it, I say Richard D. James Album is a grand old time and I enjoyed it very much. It does what it does marvelously. IDM is a ridiculous term by the way. When did Mensa start naming music genres?8 10
Favourite tracks // Fingerbib
Spending the week with Richard D. James Album has been a pleasure. While you could be forgiven for immediately conjuring thoughts of a spiky barrage of beats when talking about Aphex Twin, this particular release has a brilliant balance. “Peek 82454201” does well to push that opinion to its limits, as it does have several moments where drum patterns twang and stutter around into white noise territory, but the pads, cold and hollow as they are, complement the beats incredibly well. Elsewhere, “Fingerbib” could’ve easily appeared on the soundtrack of games like Minecraft had it appeared a decade later, and while “4” and “To Cure a Weakling Child” have a heavy emphasis on beats, they still share a comforting, ambient style that I’ve appreciated hugely over my numerous listens. Many of these tracks edge into the realm of curios too. “Goon Gumpas”, for example, sits between two glitchy, whirring drum and bass tracks, and, in stark contrast, bounces along daintily to a meandering melody. It makes it hard to find a lot of cohesion here other than in the mild insanity each track seems to share, but it’s a flaw I can overlook. Closing track “Logan Rock Witch” really is a bizarre beauty for me too, as, while it may heavily feature a slide whistle and sound more akin to an N64 title screen than an IDM track, it has truly stuck in my head and been my lasting ear worm from the album (and has actually had far more plays than the album as a whole). Put simply, Richard D James Album has won me over with its off-kilter, scattered beats and characterful melodies. I’ll most certainly be back for more.9 10
Favourite tracks // Logan Rock Witch