In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, we’re picking our favorite less-popular songs from 1994.
With the recent announcement of a new album from Aphex Twin came a renewal of one of the web’s oldest traditions, next to Star Trek arguments: intense scrutiny surrounding Richard D. James, one of electronic music’s most confounding figures. That James’ upcoming Syro would be announced with symbols glimpsed on blimps and a scavenger hunt through the deep recesses of the shadow Internet was nothing new; 20 years ago, James caused a similar stir—and cemented his mysterious legend—with the release of Selected Ambient Works, Vol. 2. Bereft of song titles, boasting a cover image that resembled some alien artifact unearthed from the desert, and containing fragmentary sketches of hallucinatory music, it was an album tailor-made for obsessive dissection by a niche online audience. And it remains the foundation of a musical legacy built on mystery.
That mystery was slowly unlocked over months on the IDM mailing list (source of the genre “Intelligent Dance Music”), which spent 1994 picking over Selected Ambient Works’ mostly unnamed tracks like ancient runes, eventually giving them titles based on their accompanying symbols—“Rhubarb,” “Shiny Metal Rods”—that remain canon to this day. But the music within remains as puzzling as ever, even two decades on. For one thing, unlike most traditional ambient, there’s little that’s soothing about it. James has said (possibly tongue-in-cheek) that his hazy compositions were inspired by lucid dreaming. Judging by the creepy loops of foreboding minor-key notes, sizzling electric thrums, and warped samples of children’s laughter, many of those dreams were nightmares.
But while Selected Ambient Works can often be a foreboding listen—which only makes it all the more intriguing to return to—there are also genuine moments of beauty like “Hexagon” that should provide easy entry to newcomers. In addition to disproving the oft-repeated myth that the album is “beat-less” with its tribalist hand drum patterns and deep bass throb, “Hexagon” also comes on like the pleasant morning-after to the album’s myriad night terrors. Like many Aphex Twin songs, it’s built on simple patterns that phase in and out of each other, creating color and mood out of the subtle shifts in repetition. A series of escalating synth notes climbs up to the clouds, an oboe occasionally pipes in with its reassuring, sunrise-over-the-farm lows, and together they create a feeling of peace, however momentary.
Listening to Selected Ambient Works now, 20 years after its example has been completely subsumed into countless other electronic acts, it might seem easy to dismiss. Whatever alien mystery it once held has long since been made commonplace. But as the world prepares to decipher whatever strange sounds James has been cooking up for the past decade and more, songs such as “Hexagon” remain part of the Rosetta stone for decoding the musical language he helped to create.