Looking back on the polarizing 2001 double opus of Richard D. James
How are we supposed to know when Aphex Twin gets his feelings hurt? Beskhu3epnm.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
That’s the language of his 2001 double album Drukqs, two heaping discs of Jynweythek Ylow and Petiatil Cx Htdui and, yes, that’s one legible word Cock/Ver10. The music often resembled scrambled computer keys, too, with so few repeated bars for a brain to grab hold of that its detractors weren’t just the technophobic. A bored SPIN, a budding Pitchfork, and an unusually bitter Rolling Stone all agreed they were fucking sick of this shit. So he left town between 2001 and 2014 after a few cult hits/viral videos in the spotlight (“Come to Daddy,” “Windowlicker”) and catered solely to his obsessive fan club for a while, with 11 volumes of the all-acid Analord series and other Easter eggs.
AUDIO: AFX Analord Vol. 1-11
That’s one possibility. Another is if you believe the hype that Drukqs was a 140-minute clearinghouse to begin with, as that one-star(!) RS review surmised there were “rumors” of, the way Alex Jones would build his sources out of straw. Maybe it was Richard James who was tired of us. Nah. Drukqs wasn’t some random tintinnabulations factory. Like the four Aphex Twin-branded full-lengths before it, it had an identifiable sound of its own, one that brought his two sharply contrasting sides together. It could’ve been more extreme, in fact; the quiet “interludes” (more on that in a moment) that rarely exceed three minutes could’ve been airy and distant like the environmental classics on Selected Ambient Works Vol. II. Instead, they’re highly percussive, close-miked classical meditations on various prepared pianos and harpsichords or (usually the case) astounding simulations. In between laid the most blistering music James ever made, drill’n’bass so forceful and complex it threatened to blow your speaker at times like the dogpiled “54 Cymru Beats,” yet still with more legible melodies than Autechre puts up front: “Vordhosbn,” “Omgyjya Switch7,” “Mt. Saint Michel Mix+St. Michaels Mount.” I only had to look up these titles to get the spelling right. And they’re just as brutal as anything less memorable here, particularly those “Omgyjya” whipping noises.
The bigger story behind this thing ended up being “Avril 14th,” a small piano ditty as gorgeous (and “organic”) as anything the madman had ever released that is now his most well-known and popular track, thanks in small part to “Blame Game,” the Kanye West and Chris Rock masterpiece that just turned 10 itself, that samples a third greatest-of-all-time performer in his medium and the subject of this piece. “Avril 14th” has at least 100 million more plays on Spotify than its nearest competitor. Unless there’s a particularly iconic movie score I’m forgetting, the tune might be the most popular “classical” composition of the last two decades. It maybe didn’t even need Kanye to achieve this. But it certainly didn’t hurt.
AUDIO: Kanye West feat. Chris Rock “Blame Game”
Long an extraordinarily thoughtful and tuneful composer, James has seen his work covered by everyone from metalcore royalty (Dillinger Escape Plan and Mike Patton’s terrifying “Come to Daddy”) to Arcade Fire side projects (Bell Orchestre brought the π-minted “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” to life) to electro-prankster successors (PC Music majordomo A.G. Cook redid “Windowlicker” shot-for-shot like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake). Skrillex flummoxed EDM heads by announcing “Flim” — a song with no “drop” — was his all-time favorite, and jazz’s favorite pop-deconstructionists the Bad Plus tried it on their debut album betwixt “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Heart of Glass.” It was past due for an actual pop juggernaut to borrow James’ sonics, and who better than the same guy who first brought Daft Punk to the Grammys?
It’s true, though, that Drukqs is the least songful Aphex album, ambients included. The repetitions that made those records the hookiest vapor Eno could’ve never predicted are only drawn upon for punctuation and rests between slabs of exciting gibberish. “Avril 14th” aside, you don’t listen to these two hours for comforting melodies even if the curatorial mood by a favorite artist is a comfort in itself, a la Sonic Youth. And as with Sonic Youth, you’re here for the squiggling Hieroglyphic fuckery. Another flashpoint is the screechy drone sections on the Knife’s Shaking the Habitual in moderate creepfests like “Gwarek2.” The foreboding rustle is the hook. In some ways it’s his most “ambient” record just because you can’t learn it by heart. Your heart can only crave it by mood. Drukqs is the darkest, brittlest, most gothic record James has ever made by some distance, an impenetrable fortress with few easy points of entry. Listening to the album in 2021 it’s an especially punk rebuke to the Spotify generation by refusing to stay fast or slow, refusing functionality or “mood” when it has so many faces.
For all we know, Drukqs (a confessional-looking title in his own encrypted way) is Aphex Twin’s most personal work. Both in length and at its level of difficulty it doesn’t seem matched by anything else as the record that must have been the most technically challenging for him to make. The sheer drum programming alone feels like it must have taken more time to craft hit by hit than whole works as disparate as AFX’s Hangable Auto Bulb or Polygon Window’s Surfing on Sine Waves. Sometimes it feels like record reviewers think their subject at hand materialized out of nowhere, more of the same. It’s difficult to imagine this one as some kind of data dump when you try to picture the man up at odd hours painting six minutes of “54 Cymru Beats” painstakingly stroke by stroke all the way to its anaphylactic-shock finish.
But what if it wasn’t? What if some crazy inventor made all these intricate gizmos and gadgets and nanobots all the time and had plenty of A-material to throw away? With 13 years of quiet hiatus to follow, we best appreciate a genius’ tasty scraps. Only a genius can make you question how easy it was at all.
- We Get What Pigs Deserve: Nine Inch Nails’ Broken EP at 30 - September 21, 2022
- Get Your Hands Off My Tomato: Sonic Youth’s Murray Street Turns 20 - July 27, 2022
- ALBUMS: Trying to Give E L U C I D and billy woods My Money (But That’s a Whole Thing) - July 6, 2022