Even before anyone heard it, there were already at least two hypothetical SYROs bouncing around in peoples’ heads. On the first album, Aphex Twin came roaring back unchanged, with no musical indication he’d ever been gone at all. This album sounded a lot like whatever the person in question’s favorite Aphex Twin album was, or perhaps a mashup of several. On the second, he amalgamated everything that had happened in music since drukQs into sixty-four and a half minutes, putting his own three-pronged stamp and his grinning mug on everything in sight. This album sounded like whatever the person wanted Aphex Twin to become, filtered through whatever recent developments in electronic music they liked.
Obviously, judging the actual album in comparison to either of these platonic ideals would be unfair, and in the end, wouldn’t really tell us all that much about how good it is. For what it’s worth, SYRO probably sounds more like the former, but it’s more of a logical followup than a repetition. For the most part, it hews close to his trademark sound. Anyone hoping for breakneck breakbeats, squelchy analog dissonance, and samples distorted beyond recognition will come away content. Like in the best of James’ work, he sounds most at home when he lets his musique concrète and techno influences bounce off each other and wind up in interesting places. At the same time, it’s not a slavish imitation of anything he’s done before. SYRO has its own distinctive sound – as much as any Aphex Twin album can be said to have a cohesive sound – while maintaining the throw-it-in experimentalism that’s always pervaded his work.
The album starts where most peoples’ exposure to it did, with the shuffling “minipops 67.” In a way, it’s the most telling song that could’ve been released, if not the most exciting one. The extra swing in the drums shows up again, even swingier, on “4 bit 9d api+e+6,” and even where the beats stick closely to the established rhythm, the percussive elements are often more evocative of “Windowlicker” than “Mt Saint Michel + Saint Michael's Mount.” The heavily modulated voices that come in at the end of “minipops” are another mainstay of the album, sometimes winking in the direction of soulful house, and other times rumbling under layers of distortion and bit reduction. Overall, and the general aesthetic of oscillating between hard and soft and both simultaneously is present on SYRO.
In the same way, there seems to be very little repetition throughout the record. Most of the music is too focused on juxtaposing one sound with another to have time for hooks of any kind, and on several of the more chaotic songs, even the drums seem to never play the same bar twice. While the vast majority of electronic music today seems to be built around minimalism and structure, Aphex Twin is practicing gleefully chaotic maximalism. Even while some songs like the ten-minute-plus “XMAS_EVET10” seem to have been composed to feature every piece of equipment in James’ studio, every bit of sound is in a place that makes a strange kind of sense. It’s riveting to hear an album this unpredictable for the first time, especially with the mind-boggling level of detail put into every one-off motif. It’s a record that only could have been made by someone with a massive amount of time on their hands.
As the album progresses, though, you’re reminded that even unpredictability can become predictable. The second- and third-to-last songs, “PAPAT4” and “s950tx16wasr10,” probably embody this the most. They’re the fastest two songs on the album, and they contain enough distorted, eerie sampling and processing that it would be difficult to call them boring. But it would also be a stretch to call them great, even more so when there are already so many Aphex Twin tracks that do the same thing better. SYRO would hardly be the first good album to suffer from a few filler tracks, but slow moments pop up elsewhere on the album too, with some of the more exciting ideas constrained by the necessity to fit in with the style. It’s still fun, challenging music, but it doesn’t compare to the high points of James’ discography as well as one might hope.
In contrast, some of the strongest pieces of the album are also the least expected. “180db_” begins with a simple four-on-the-floor beat, and then dissects it, layering polyrhythms and otherworldly textures on top. “aisatsana,” the album’s somber, piano-centric closer, takes after “Avril 14” (from drukQs). But where “Avril 14” was content to plink along metronomically, “aisatsana” lets its chords ring out into space, revealing a subdued, whispery soundscape hidden beneath them. It’s a surprisingly effective gesture, turning the traditional Aphex model of hard beats with pretty things going on in the background on its head, and counterpointing the rest of the album’s comparative heaviness.
The bottom line is, the person hoping that SYRO would be a return to form and the person hoping for it to be radical reinvention will be disappointed. Neither of these are reasons to dismiss the album out of hand; at its worst the album is still very good, and at its best it reminds the listener why Aphex Twin is treated so reverentially in the first place. It’s a carefully made, intricate followup to his previous material, with enough adventurous impulses to make it unique. And, experienced on headphones, it will probably turn out to be an audiophile’s dream. Past that, it’s hard to say much about it. It’s good, but not great. Experimental but not groundbreaking. Exciting but not thrilling. It’s a serviceable Aphex Twin record, with all the good and the bad the phrase implies.
SYRO is due to be released September 19 on Warp Records.