Pity this poor writer. He is tasked with making greater sense of a deliberate musical enigma; with bringing the necessary gravity to a genre touchstone that will likely be ignored by the popular mass; with detailing the thick context surrounding a career that spans nearly 30 years; with providing some sort of opinion about a work of art crafted by a man much smarter than him.
For those of you who have not been following the slow, strange emergence of one of the most anticipated LPs in recent musical history, Syro is the latest entry into the Aphex Twin discography, a vast and iconic body of work in the world of music made with machines. Its mastermind is Richard D. James, a mythic Cornish ginger who, with the exception of a number of low-key pseudonym releases, has sat dormant and invisible upon the reputation and expectation associated with Aphex Twin for the last 13 years.
In the interim, an entirely new generation of hipsters, enthusiasts, musicians and general weirdos has discovered the best of electronic music through Aphex Twin. James has served as a sort of guru-guide for those navigating the scenic, savage, unwieldy landscape of electronica’s history. His music has tackled rave, techno, drum n’ bass, jungle, ambient, glitch and aggro-funk, among others. More often than not, Aphex Twin has conquered each of them, taking generic features and twisting them into wild, hypnotic sculptures of sound.
Now that this crowd is alive to witness the birth of a new hour’s worth of Aphex Twin music, what could be the proper response? Despite the appearance of logoed blimps, bizarre facial distortion, long ironic receipts detailing promotional costs and a multi-part interview with Pitchfork, the Aphex Twin brand is largely hype-proof. Its reputation is one of unblemished genius, ceaseless innovation and unquestioned musical authority.
Indeed, it is rather impossible to respond properly and objectively to something so enormously anticipated as Syro. Just to be able to hear these analog soundscapes, while discovering entirely new sounds along the way, is exhilarating enough for those who have already explored the Aphex Twin frontiers. However, rather than aggressively expanding the boundaries of the electronica world as before, Syro sees James looking more closely at the diversity of life within that world, and, in the process, finding new species to catalog.
The tracks themselves, titled in a way that resembles warped data entry, function as snapshots of these different electronic ecosystems. The clean, restrained density of “minipops 67 [120.2] [source field mix]” gives way to club-ready pieces like “XMAS_EVET10  [thanaton3 mix]” and “CIRCLONT6A [141.98] [syrobonkus mix],” if that club was run out of a black-lit psych ward by Roy Batty in Blade Runner. Others brandish personalities all their own, from the sociopathic sneer of “produk 29 ” to the unmedicated schizophrenia of “s950tx16wasr10 [163.97] [earth portal mix].” It is a motley crew of alien noise that combines all the styles and nuances of electronica indiscriminately before exposing them to the psychic radiation of James’s mind.
If this description sounds somewhat intimidating, that’s because it is. Arguably, though, it is no more impenetrable than any other Aphex Twin release. If anything, it is a thrilling blend of styles that, over time, has the potential to win over certain casual listeners. Besides, there is the remarkable catharsis that comes with the final track, “aisatsana ,” a Satie-esque piano piece that is so day-lit and organic that it even has the faint sound of birds singing at the low end of the mix. Written for James’s wife Anastasia (reverse the track name), it is one of the most sincere moments of his career. It is as if while scrutinizing the maze of paths he’s pioneered in the past decades, James has, at long last, stumbled upon something beautiful among all the madness.