Both the most visible face in electronic music—it’s leered disconcertingly from the covers of albums and the shoulders of bikini models—and its most enigmatic personality, Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James is an artist made for obsessives. His music’s rise coincided with the flourishing of the Internet, tailored for picking apart on newsgroups and Listservs. His use of obscure analog and digital equipment (which has only grown more complex with the years), invites the intense scrutiny of gearheads quick to ridicule anyone who clearly can’t tell the Roland MK570 from the Roland MK550. His song titles, when he deigns to give them, are gibberish; being familiar with all of them further requires sorting through countless aliases like The Tuss and AFX, limited-edition EPs, mislabeled MP3s, and even entire lost albums. That refusal to make it easy has rewarded Aphex Twin with a fiercely loyal, incredibly protective fanbase, but it’s barely left the door open for anyone else.
And yet, James chose to announce Syro, his first proper album as Aphex Twin since 2001’s Drukqs, not only on a Deep Web browser, but on the side of a blimp. That’s because, in those 13 intervening years, there’s been an incredible growth in the mainstream audience for electronic music—and Syro suggests that James is ready to reclaim his piece. He’s touched briefly on pop crossover before, first with 1997’s industrial parody-that-most-took-seriously, “Come To Daddy,” and especially with the skewed G-funk of 1999’s “Windowlicker.” But Syro feels like the most broadly appealing album to be released under the Aphex Twin moniker yet, perfectly timed for a generation less likely to see his songs as the sole province of weirdos. (Even if he’s still giving them weirdo names: “What’s your favorite Aphex Twin tune?” “Definitely ‘4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26]’—that’s my jam!”)
That blimp-sized ambition is reflected on Syro itself, beginning with its ironically named opener “minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix].” A refresher course on every aspect of the Aphex Twin sound, “minipops” combines big, shuffling beats, eerily lush Selected Ambient Works synths, and back-masked robot voices, creating pop that’s actually quite maximalist—and reflective of its beginnings in James’ live DJ sets. The same can be said of its second track and centerpiece, the nearly 10-minute long “XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix],”a song that’s been spoken of reverently among fans ever since debuting in a 2010 set in Metz, France. Over a classic, squiggly synth-funk backing that Prince could easily get down on, James builds from slowly creeping Vangelis synth pads and ghostly, pitch-shifted robot choirs into a chorus of reverbed ringing bells and pinging, junglist hand drums for possibly the most straightforwardly euphoric groove he’s ever created. You could throw “XMAS_EVET” into any club set, and everyone could get down without being thrown by a jarring rhythm or risk of bodily injury—not true of a lot of Aphex Twin.
Still, despite that same Space Invader funk underlying “4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26” and “syro u473t8+e [141.98][piezoluminescence mix],” and despite James’ own avowals that it’s the “most accessible” album he’s ever made, Syro isn’t quite Aphex Twin’s Random Access Memories. For one thing, he still refuses to play nice: “4 bit” is possessed by horror movie synths and tubular bells, and sputters to a mid-song breakdown of machinery, while the seesawing, New Romantic glides of “syro” get chopped and screwed in its brutal glitch outro. And he demonstrates his wicked sense of humor as the hands-in-the-air high of “XMAS_EVET” immediately gives way to “produk 29 ,” a song that starts off with a deep, jazzy R&B throb, only to be joined by fragments of a woman’s voice recounting a night out (“We were in that club… Fucking disgusting… Fucking whore”) that’s like a sly sneer at the dance floor scene he’s just set.
Syro’s middle is given over to exploring that more challenging side. “180db_ ” pairs a maddeningly repetitive line of detuned synth with a four-on-the-floor beat, while the complementary spin cycles of “CIRCLONT6A” and “CIRCLONT14” are pure computer malfunction music, pointillist digital sprays over frantic, BPM-pushing breakbeats reminiscent of James’ pal Squarepusher. By the time the haunted house of “s950tx16wasr10 [163.97][earth portal mix]” arrives, its brief reemergence of oscillating bass voices—beneath all the metallic creaks, Poltergeist children’s voices, and watery echoes dripping through hollow logs—sounds like that earlier funk is being strangled and buried alive.
Of course, if there’s one minor disappointment to Syro, it’s perhaps that it isn’t challenging enough. That onus is one James placed on himself with these years of Aphex Twin dormancy and a legacy of constant reinvention—and it’s an exciting burden to have. But even if Syro isn’t a radical departure, it’s still a swaggering return, a reminder of just how many varieties of warped sound remain at James’ command—and just how few of his acolytes can touch that versatility. And with its promise of even more new material to come, Syro should only deepen the fascination with one of electronic music’s most demented architects, and it seems poised to expand his cult even wider. The obsessives may have to make room.