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Monday, June 13, 2011

Aphex Twin, "Selected Ambient Works 85-92"

Aphex Twin
"Selected Ambient Works 85-92"
R&S (1992)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Electronic music is almost automatically associated with dance, for better or for worse. The stereotypical image is of young people drinking and waving glow-sticks during a rave. Richard “Aphex Twin” James, an already established club DJ, had other ideas. His work on his debut under the Aphex Twin name, “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” was like a shot of insulin to rave’s adrenaline: calming and ambient.

Many of the tracks on “SAW” work just fine for dancing, but the method has an element of control often hard to find in faster-paced club fare. James slows down his beats and adds the titles “Ambient” factor by adding echoes to much of the synths used. The calm pace of acts like Aphex Twin led to the term/genre “intelligent dance music,” a subgenre I find to be overly generalized. Suggesting that less constrained acts aren’t intelligent simply for being fast is ridiculous, but there’s no doubt one can’t simply start bouncing around when listening to “SAW.”

All critics use the term “ambient” en masse when describing “SAW,” but the reader has to be careful not to take the word for as one simple definition. Every one of the 13 tracks is truly ambient, but it’s impressive how many shades of ambient James can produce on the album. Some are prototypically ambient: slow synthesizers and dreamy echo effects. Others, like “Ptolemy” are perfectly suited for dancing with programmed open-close hi-hats in full force, while others like “Schottkey 7th Path” are downright creepy. All use the same echo effects to get the ambience across.

Perhaps the most difficult tracks to contemplate as being ambient are the dance tracks. James uses layering nicely to merge the seemingly paradoxical terms. For example, on the track “Tha,” one layer is a slow synth that sounds almost new wave by itself. Below it is a click-track percussion that sounds like a regular dance-worthy electronic track. Together, the best half-and-half you’ve ever had in your musical coffee.

James has mastered uniting the counteracting moods. Often, when an artist tries a balancing act between two genres like Aphex Twin does, the outcome is an overly watered-down product. Selected Ambient Works is not.

INTERESTING FACT: Two movies are sampled during the album. The obvious is Gene Wilder’s quote from “Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory,” but Green Calx is a constant barrage of sound effects (but no vocals) from “Robocop.”


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