Dust off your Roland cuz Richard’s back! With the release of Syro quickly approaching after 13 cold years on hiatus, there’s no better time to explore the hallmark Aphex Twin record Richard D. James Album than now. Released in 1996 from everyone’s favorite grimacing Cornwallite, RDJA serves as a clear middle ground between Aphex’s softer early-90s releases such as “On,” and his later propensity for the macabre, famously shown on “Come to Daddy.”
To this point, the album’s opener “4” has RDJ gorgeously building shimmering drum blasts, string harmonies, and warm melody lines—all of which are quickly abandoned in the following two tracks to explore more angular abrasive styles. The album is rife with this kind of interplay between facile, pretty electronics, and on-your-ass discord, making it initially accessible but ultimately challenging to fully appreciate. For its stylistic breadth, Richard D. James Album serves as a great entry point for newcomers to the genre.
Thankfully, easy points of ingress like “4” are interspersed throughout the album, be it in the playground ebullience of “Fingerbib,” the winding layers of “Carn Marth”’s labyrinthine outro, or the simmering warmth of the synths in “Yellow Calx.” RDJ’s knack for sharp drum trills remains ubiquitous throughout these songs and yet he cleverly finds a way to have them only further enhance the tracks’ lush melodies. That’s the thrust of this album’s charm; for every pretty hook, for every layer of strings he uses to brighten up a track, Aphex Twin gets you to swallow a bit more of his medicine. The parts of the album you immediately latch on to find a way to sell you on the rest — the sharp tempo changes, the frenetic bursts of synths and samples. Eventually, tracks like “Cornish Acid,” “Peek.824545201,” and “To Cure a Weakling Child,” while packed with Aphex Twin BrandTM strangeness, bloom into their own particular kind of loveliness, if for no other reason than the tight-as-hell programming and inventive sampling.
I find this record to be mostly sterile despite its ability to convey warmth and frigidity in equal measure. Whereas most of my favorite albums hold some sentimental value, Richard D. James Album makes the cut because it’s just really interesting and engrossing to listen to. The way its melodic simplicity belies a deeper complexity makes it rewarding to repeatedly absorb on a level rarely accomplished by electronic music.
The expected release date of Syro is September 22 (via Warp).