(and you should vote for him now in The Meteor Choice Music Prize)
By Will Lynch
It is curious to see how one of my favourite musicians from my teenage years is now surfing the crest of the cultural zeitgeist once again. It is peculiar, as Aphex Twin won a Grammy twenty years after his best work. There is a pattern here, for one of the originators of Techno music, Detroit’s Juan Atkins was nominated for a Grammy in 2006, a full twenty years after his best work. There must have been a rip in the space-time continuum over at The Grammys. Even Rolling Stone magazine recently pronounced Artificial Intelligence (Aphex Twin opens the album under the moniker The Dice Man) as one of the most ground breaking albums of all time. From being relatively obscure and unknown, he is now the apotheosis of cool and the only faux-pax any discerning hipster can commit now is to say Aphex Who?
So why now? The overlapping sociological forces that determine whether an artist is in vogue are difficult to discern. Personally, I first encountered Aphex Twin through a friend in secondary school. Like a lot of people at the time, my gateway drug to what is now called Electronic Dance Music was The Prodigy. From The Prodigy it was a short Melbourne Shuffle away to discovering Orbital, The Orb, Leftfield and then the greatest producers of the 20th century, the holy electronic music trinity of Kraftwerk, Autechre and Aphex Twin. I say 20th century deliberately for this is when Autechre and Aphex Twin, both hailing from the boundary pushing WARP label from Sheffield produced their best work. Kraftwerk lit the fuse that influenced everything from Detroit techno to hip-hop and of course electro, but arguably the most talented of this digital troika was Aphex Twin.
I remember vividly when one of my school friends in 5th year lent me Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol 1 & 2 and it was one of those experiences that expand your aural horizons beyond what you thought was imaginable. I just never heard such elegant and intricate music before. The beautiful and melodic Helisophan just blew my fifteen year old ears away.
I quickly went to Tower Records and bought my own copies and a large portion of my teenage years were spent lying in bed at night drifting off to lucid dreams with the haunting strains of Selected Ambient Works Vol 2 soothing me to sleep.
Of course at the time, very few people heard of Aphex Twin. Indeed the first time I ever heard Aphex Twin was on the radio on Chillage Idiots on XFM, an underground Dublin pirate radio station. It wasn’t until Thom Yorke said in an interview around the release of Kid A that he said he was hugely influenced by Aphex Twin and Autechre that they suddenly slipped into mainstream awareness.
Born Richard D James in Limerick, and grew up in Cornwall, he adopted the moniker Aphex Twin (along with Polygon Window and The Dice Man as he appeard on the album that gave birth to a new musical genre, ‘IDM’, Artifcial Intelligence) along with the iconic logo that some fans have had tattooed on their bodies. It was a pretty cool logo to scribble on school bags and toilet walls – one symbol that devoted your love to this tortured idiosyncratic genius from Limerick.
Perhaps his greatest work was Polygon Window – Surfing on Sine Waves which was an album unlike anything I heard before. It just growled with warbling electronic anger yet pulsated with timeless beauty. You will still hear tracks from Surfing on Sine Waves played in clubs today. One of my most lingering memories is seeing the sun rise over Donabate beach one summers morning at a rave party in 2001 when Aphex Twin’s Digerdoo was pumping out of the soundsystem at full blast. It was a very visceral and raw experience and it really felt like the music was magnetically moving your body.
Aphex Twin’s acclaimed collaborations with the director Chris Cunningham truly catapulted him into another stratosphere of cool. Donal Dineen’s No Disco on RTE 2 (an avant-garde music show that I would imagine that would struggle to be made now) used to give airtime to these Chris Cuniningham and Aphex Twin videos. The slick and imaginative music videos, some which are like a Francis Bacon painting on acid, are truly unique and seared one’s consciousness. Perhaps the most fun of these and certainly the most ambitious was Windowlicker, a track that has a hypnotic vocal sweeping through a cauldron of beats. I heard Svan Vath finish on this record whilst playing in Ibiza this summer, which again illustrates the timeless quality of his music.
One of the most tender moments in the brilliant Four Lions by the satirist Chris Morris was when Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th laid the soundtrack to a pivotal scene. Kayne West must of watched this film as he shamelessly plagariased the track.
The Grammy that Aphex Twin won on Sunday night and the Meteor Choice Music Prize he has been nominated for is perhaps a belated recognition of his sheer musical genius rather than for the decent but lacklustre Syro, which was released last September. It is worth emphasising that Syro still is far superior than anything else produced today.
Hopefully in the fullness of time, Irish people will proudly claim Aphex Twin as being one of our greatest ever Irish musicians. Maybe he will even sell out five nights in Croke Park some sweet day.
You can vote for Syro here in the best Irish album at The Meteor Choice Music Prize.
The winner will be announced at the Meteor Choice Music Prize live event in Vicar Street on Thursday 5 March.