On September 23rd, Aphex Twin released his first full-length LP in 13 years: Syro (pronounced: sigh-ro). Richard D. James, known by many other names, but most prominently as Aphex Twin, is an introvert. He found himself exploring a style of music that was relatively small at the time. Where the mid-90s was an era best known by its pop-fueled boy bands, independent alternative rock, and the end of a short-lived grunge scene, there was also a growing trend in a soon-to-be massive electronic scene.
Today, electronic music is an extremely extroverted landscape with thousands of people flocking to their local or faraway festival to savor in their favorite DJs amongst a crowd of loving and adoring fans. In the mid-90s, that scene was a different beast. Hungry ravers would flock to small bars and clubs to either see their favorite DJs or just dance the night away, but regardless of their mission, the location was dark and recluse.
An introverted musical genius some would say, but fortunately for us he found his way towards pioneering certain forms of electronic music that we now take for granted. At age 11, he is rumored to have made music from a home computer keyboard with no sound hardware. At age 19, he graduated from engineering school. And at age 21, he had his first major release as Aphex Twin: the 1992 electronic classic Selected Ambient Works ‘85-‘92.
The rest of his career is history mostly contained to the 1990s, with 4 of his 5 LPs released during that time, along with countless other singles and EPs sprawled out among his many aliases. During the 2000s, Aphex Twin was relatively silent. He released one full-length album Drukqs in 2001 and a series of Analord EPs that flew under the radar in 2006.
Though last decade was silent, this one appears like it could be a different story. Aphex Twin announced back in 2010 that he has a total of 6 completed albums not yet slated for release, and 2014 has thus far been a big year for Richard James. We witnessed a Kickstarter campaign this past June for his unreleased 1994 Caustic Window LP, which raised more than $47,000. Although this was a rare, accepted sighting of Richard James, there was still no news of a new album.
Then, on August 16th, an ominous, green blimp floated over the Oval Space in London with “2014” written on its side, and the “0” sporting Aphex Twin’s lauded logo. On that same day, Aphex Twin logos cropped up in various spots around New York City, most notably right outside of Radio City Music Hall. Two days after these guerrilla advertisements appeared, Aphex Twin’s official Twitter account released a link to the deep web browser Tor containing information regarding Syro’s album title and obscure track listing. Then, a lottery for one of the 200 copies of a limited edition box set was posted. The press release that Warp Records issued is a confounding hodgepodge description of Aphex Twin’s career that is probably a more accurate representation of him than his Wikipedia page claims. Finally, a new track was released.
Behind this marketing campaign and release are two entities: Warp Records and Designers Republic. Warp boasts an incredible lineup of past and present, personal favorites such as Battles, TNGHT, Grizzly Bear, Gang Gang Dance, Flying Lotus, Death Grips, Rustie, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Brian Eno. Each one of these artists is an example of complex, innovative, and impressive form, instrumentation, and structure and is granted the freedom to explore and discover incredible sounds.
Warp has a strong tradition of allowing their artists to breach musical boundaries, unlike most record labels today. Warp released “Atlas” by Battles, which contains 8 incredible minutes of well-explored, built-up brilliance as well as the 11 minute, obscure, but illustrious Gang Gang Dance song “Glass Jar”. However, Aphex Twin’s music is some of the most meticulous and explored as any song or album released through this label. Their legacy is being put to the test and presented through their grandeur marketing efforts for the latest LP, Syro.
On this new album, we again see Designers Republic cover art. Known for their interesting mix of anti-establishment, consumerism, and uniform style in their advertisements that is best represented through such works as Coca-Cola and Nickelodeon. The prominent, copy-written red used for Coca-Cola is so engrained in our day-to-day that people could be drawn subconsciously to that color in such a way where if you saw that pigment, you would wonder why “Coca-Cola” were not emblazoned on top. Designers Republic’s uniform style draws a subconscious link between their advertising and products.
In a similar vein, the album art for Syro resembles an old-fashioned, itemized receipt. The receipt of the costs for the album will be modified based on the album edition purchased if more costs were required for the manufacturer. This strategy follows the same pattern of linking subconsciously an item that we have seen countless times to Aphex Twin’s new album. This marketing forces consumers to think about this album on those rare occasions when they would see an old-itemized receipt. But why did they choose such a dated item? Much of the advertising work thus far for the album has been targeted towards existing fans, utilizing them as word-of-mouth advertisements, instead of attempting to build a new fan base.
Does this style of advertising demonstrate Aphex Twin’s maturity in understanding who the target consumer is for his album? Many younger electronic producers may incorrectly let their record label market their album to build their fan base and extend their reach towards those who are not interested. However, Aphex Twin is confident in his music and does not feel the need to extend his reach to those who may not appreciate his style or sound.
If Aphex Twin does indeed have 6 albums completed, but yet unreleased, then why doesn’t he believe his fans are ready for them? The advertising for Syro demonstrates a trust with his fans, gearing those guerrilla tactics towards an audience that appreciates his style and is excited for this new album. Does he think that his fans aren’t ready for new music? Is he starting to think that we’ve moved past him?
This lag in release could suggest a dormant period marked by lost assurance in his music. Aphex Twin appears to be an artist very cynical in his music and judgmental in the way it has progressed over the years. He has even said in a past interview, “It sounds really arrogant, but my music’s my favorite music ever. I prefer it to anyone else’s.” Maybe he began to witness a decline in his musical ability or maybe he finally allowed his life to become a blissful ignorance that he deserved after so many years of mind-numbing thought. Perhaps he witnessed the explosion of electronic music during his silence, and vowed to see where it would head before releasing another album.
It sounds really arrogant, but my music’s my favorite music ever. I prefer it to anyone else’s.
Ultimately, Aphex Twin’s music describes a lost and utterly distressed state of being, one that so many people can relate to, because we’ve all been there. At some point, we have experienced moving from a comfortable state of being into the unknown and uncertain. Maybe this moment was moving into a new apartment, maybe it was moving to a new city. This strange, new environment, similar in the way Richard James orchestrates on every album, begins as an uncertainty of your surroundings and confidently deters this discomfort for climactic realization. The hardship faced throughout this process was necessary in order to mature, and we have continued to see this over his decades of experience.
What we will experience on Aphex Twin’s new album is a further matured sound, as is already demonstrated on the wonderfully explored on “minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]”. Like other early electronic pioneers that still remain in the scene, there is nostalgia in the way this album is produced. The tracks on his new album are named after the machines he used to produce their sounds. Like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which heavily featured older analog synthesizers, Aphex Twin’s album will be a reimagining of the sounds that he began with.
In the electronic landscape that exists today, how will this introverted, nostalgic pioneer fair in this extroverted environment? His modern place in music is not established, and this album must reclaim the foothold in history that he has maintained.
Just like the intriguing desire that Aphex Twin fans have for his new album, Richard James must be just as curious of what will happen to his lifestyle and his career with a new album launch. The marketing used for this album release is built from his curiosity and he poses questions for his fans to answer. Questions about how he fits in the current electronic landscape. These guerilla tactics are exciting for both sides, because fans feel appreciated and have an exciting new topic to discuss, whereas Aphex Twin can track and understand through modern technology how those committed fans are reacting.
Maybe like Aphex Twin’s music, this marketing strategy is all just a formula, an algorithm, a planned process to generate buzz. Maybe there are no worldly questions related to this album release, and it’s just our own life preprogrammed to give us those exciting experiences when we need them most. However, Aphex Twin is orchestrating this experience, because he knows we need direction. Our own personal ups and downs follow a sequence of rhythmic and repetitive patterns, not 4-on-the-floor style, but sporadic beats like the drum hits, kicks, and cymbals that Aphex Twin produces to give a clear, distinct and organized direction guiding us on our life’s journey.2