I’m not ready to write this column.
I usually like to spin any record I’m reviewing four times at least before I sit down to compose my thoughts. Most of the time, that’s enough for me to fully dissect the music, the meaning, and the record’s overall effect. Of course, I mostly deal with pop records, which means most of the time the music isn’t that hard to analyze, the meaning is pretty basic and my sense of the record’s overall effect doesn’t change from my first impression that much.
I’m right now on my seventh trip through Aphex Twin’s Drukqs, and I’m still wondering what I’m going to type next. The music is impossible to describe, the meaning is complicated by the lack of lyrics, and my sense of the overall effect is still forming and changing with each passing second.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Aphex Twin is one of those acts name-dropped to seem cool by your elitist music fan friends who, in reality, only dip beneath the mainstream every once in a while. Depending on who you talk to, Aphex Twin is either invisible or overexposed. AT is the brainchild of one man, who has gone to considerable lengths to disguise the fact that his name is Rick James. James pioneered a new form of music in the late ‘80s which, for lack of a more restrictive and inaccurate name, has come to be known as Intelligent Dance Music. Never mind the fact that you’d have to possess 18 legs, be able to move at lightning speed and perhaps suffer from epilepsy to actually dance to James’ work.
Anyway, in 1990 James released his defining masterwork, or at the very least the work he continues to be defined by, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II. A two-disc set of lovely sound collages, this album marked the conclusion of one phase of the Aphex Twin story. James then spent the bulk of the ensuing 10 years working under various names, but mostly Aphex Twin, to explore the tension between ambient sound and frenzied percussive landscapes. On 1995’s Richard D. James Album especially, the beats got faster and the beds of synth sound atop them got more peaceful, and the resultant push and pull yielded a unique sound. James’ ’90s work is fascinating on a purely theoretical level, and bewildering as ear candy.
Nothing he’s done since Selected Ambient Works is as sprawling as Drukqs, a two-disc, 100-minute opus on which James finally crests the mountain he’s been scaling since 1992. Here, at last, is the sound he’s been building towards, a complete examination of the juxtaposition of pulsing frenzy and absolute calm. On roughly half the tracks, the drums blaze like never before, often sounding somewhat random in their fury. That they’re actually carefully constructed only becomes clear after multiple listens to the relationships between the percussion tracks and the placid waves of synths beneath and atop them. Everything is perfectly in place, and the sonic construction is miles ahead of his previous work.
Of course, that’s only half the tracks, and there are 30 of them. Drukqs also finds James bringing this new sense of composition back to his ambient work. He steps into John Cage territory more than a few times with lovely, dissonant prepared piano pieces. (What that means, for those not familiar with the term “prepared piano,” is that James physically altered pianos to create new sounds from them. Cage was famous for it – his pieces often required sheets of paper inserted between the strings, clothespins attached to other strings, and strips of metal glued to the hammers. The sounds this preparation creates are extraordinary, if a little sacrilegious to piano lovers.)
The result is a lovely batch of songs, a huge statement from a true original. It presents a surprising array of emotions, even for James’ work, which is known for its infusion of emotion and warmth into cold mechanical instruments. On your first listen through, you’d be forgiven for just having trouble keeping up with the density of the music, but subsequent listens make it easier to climb aboard James’ emotional spinning teacup ride, as it were. The listener is wrenched from one extreme to another pretty often throughout Drukqs, and it’s never more exhilarating than when it’s pummeling you with both extremes at once.
The major fault of this collection is that it’s simply that: a collection. James revisits certain sounds, such as the prepared piano pieces sprinkled throughout, but overall Drukqs feels scattered. More could have been done to unify the record, both to make it feel like a single suite and to help explain the massive running time. Instead, five seconds of silence have actually been inserted between each track, which only lends to the disjointed feel of the project.
This may explain the internet rumors that Drukqs is merely a collection of tracks James has had on his hard drive for years, delivered now to satisfy his record contract. I’d say the material itself argues against that. James has taken what’s become his signature sound over the last decade to new heights here, and it’s a shame that such exploration is weighed down by a few tracks of filler and an overall sense of disunity.
Minor quibbles, though. Pound for pound, Drukqs is the most challenging and rewarding record James has made since Selected Ambient Works, and like that record, it may signal the close of this particular chapter of his career. That’s sort of a shame as well, since no one currently working combines the meticulous and the emotional like James does. Despite all attempts to label him (I mean, come on, Intelligent Dance Music?), James remains the best there is in a field of one. This idiosyncratic and musically daunting work is not for everyone, but if you’ve ever wondered what a computer having a vomiting fit and a nervous breakdown at the same time might sound like, check this out.
Especially if that last sentence sounds appealing to you.
A quick note: you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any song titles throughout this review. That’s because James is an artist who either believes in the arbitrary nature of titles, or can make perfect sense of his own attempts at them. Either way, they bear no discernible relation to the songs themselves. Here are a few examples: “Jynweythek,” “Hy a Scullyas Lyf Adhagrow,” “Beskhu3epnm” and “Btoum-Roumada.” See what I mean?
The rest of the year is rounding out nicely with new ones from Paul McCartney, Prince, De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan and a live album from Radiohead. Seven more columns, then we do the Top 10 List and call it a year. Where the hell did it go?
Next, Lenny Kravitz. Happy Halloween, for those of you who live in communities that haven’t cancelled it.
See you in line Tuesday morning.