Selected Ambient Works 85–92
The Home Brew of a Genius
Like lots of people involved in electronic dance music, Richard D. James—operating under the nom de pop Aphex Twin—learned how to use synthesizers and beat boxes (and even sandpaper on a turntable instead of a vinyl record) to make powerful, transformative music. He created some notable stuff in the early '90s, earning a reputation (and significant cash) as a remixer with a knack for scrumptious, detailed tracks. Meanwhile his heart was elsewhere. For his own amusement, he began exploring less frenetic pulses that pull apart the building blocks of electronica. With this measured, understated music—collected on the homemade Selected Ambient Works 85–92—James became the patriarch of ambient techno.
To most of humanity, "ambient techno" will seem another meaningless genre classification, and a contradiction besides—techno connotes pulse and motion, while ambient music suggests sounds that could hover in the air for hours. James reconciles these ideas brilliantly. He surrounds simple, steady beats with synthesized "auras" that seem to envelop the sound field, radiating calm. His settings are uncluttered. At times the sharp edges of electronica are blunted by the recording, which was allegedly made on a primitive four-track cassette machine. This turns out to be a positive: While much club music is so pristine as to be off-putting, the soundscapes on Selected Ambient Works—particularly the eerily pastoral "Ageispolis" and "Pulsewidth"—are mysterious, inviting in a fuzzy analog way.
This album is one of a small cluster of electronica records designed for listening and reflection. Incredibly, it's also got a bit of the Ecstasy generation's joy in it. Taking just a step away from clubland, James finds himself in a detached, desolate netherworld, yet with the energy and the lust of the club still ringing in his ears. This inspires music that aims for the scope of a symphony orchestra, and the sudden subtle emotional ripples of great piano-trio jazz. Listen on headphones to fully appreciate the bubbling and bright possibilities James found while puttering in the lab.
Released: 1993, Apollo (Reissued 2002, PIAS America)
Key Tracks: "Ageispolis," "We Are the Music Makers," "Pulsewidth," "Delphium."
Buyer Beware: Volume 2 of Selected Ambient Works, issued the following year, is nothing like this—mostly oceanic washes of texture with very little rhythm.
Next Stop: Jon Hassell/Brian Eno: Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics
After That: David Torn: Cloud About Mercury
Book Pages: 22–23