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Decrypting The Aphex Twin Soundcloud

A guide to making (some) sense of 173 unreleased tracks, a vortex of confusing titles & brilliant music

The Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, is nothing if not a mystery to his fans. A (shall we say) liberated approach to the truth in interviews, combined with a mischievous sense of humor means that rumours abound about the 43-year-old producer and have done so since he arrived in the public consciousness in 1991 with the Analogue Bubblebath EP.

Does he drive a tank? Does he write his music by lucid dreaming? And did he really remix a Craig David song “just to annoy him?” We’ll probably never know.

The biggest tease for his fans, though, is the promise of his unreleased material. James is known for his prodigious work rate which, when coupled with an ambivalent attitude towards actually releasing music (2001 album Drukqs was apparently only released because he left a minidisc player containing most of the tracks on a plane), means that he has hundreds, possibly thousands, of unreleased songs sitting around in the vault.

Suppose, the thinking went, that these unreleased tracks were actually better than the music James released upon the world? That there was music in the vault that was more mind-bendingly melodic than “Window Licker,” more propulsive than “Digeridoo” and even prettier than “Analogue Bubblebath?” It was the ultimate tease and—short of waiting for a miracle and/or death—it didn’t look like one that was ever going to be resolved.

It still hasn’t, of course. But James’ unexpected decision to upload 173 unreleased songs to a non-descript “User 48736353001" SoundCloud account over the past month might be as close as we'll get to unravelling the mystery of the Aphex Twin archive.

One hundred seventy-three (and counting) songs is a lot—more than nine hours of solid listening and a running time longer than James’ official discography under the Aphex Twin name (there are, of course, hundreds more songs released under various pseudonyms). It’s intimidating, a vortex of confusing song titles and brilliant music which seems to adhere to no internal logic. Several friends of mine—even devoted Aphex fans—have cried off, buried under an avalanche of songs that gets bigger by the day.

So how to make sense of the SoundCloud dump? Thump sent a journalist off to listen to the whole lot in one sitting. Joe Muggs, writing for the Boiler Room, asked several artists for their pick of the SoundCloud tracks. And the helpful people from fan site We Are the Music Makers produced a Google Doc spreadsheet that annotates the entire 155-song shebang, noting title, era, comments etc.

For my part, I wanted to make some more general observations, ideas that came to me while listening to the songs and which helped me to make some sense of them, all in the name of my sanity and possibly yours.

Before that, though, a word of caution: as journalists over the years have discovered, attempting to make sense of anything that James does is a fool’s game. He still hasn’t confirmed these songs are his (although plentiful evidence leaves this in little real doubt) and he hasn’t said anything about why he has chosen these particular tracks—a real hodgepodge of genres, times and styles—for release. Maybe there’s some master plan. Most likely, though, it’s just a random selection, as he picks over old DATs and hard drives. We may never know.

The best music does get released

Possibly the most important question that the SoundCloud page answers is whether RDJ releases his best material commercially. There may, of course, still be a stash of tracks that James has hidden away somewhere, never to see the light of day, which beat anything in his catalogue. But if we assume that’s not the case and these SoundCloud tracks are fairly representative of the Aphex vaults, then it seems fair to say that the best RDJ material generally gets a commercial release.

That’s not to slight the SoundCloud tracks, there is some heart-stoppingly brilliant music in there, tracks that could prove a career highlight of many other electronic artists. But, personally, there’s nothing in there that would make my all-time Aphex top 10.

So what are the best tracks on the SoundCloud? That’s a very subjective matter, of course, but the Boiler Room feature sees both Manuel Sepulveda and Tom Middleton plump for Julie Andrews-assisted rave monster “Human Rotation,” while King Britt goes for “luke vibert spiral staircase [future music competition] [afx remix]” and Pangaea chooses the Selected Ambient Works 2-esque “Red Calx[slo],” all tracks that have come up regularly in conversation with friends.

Aphex Twin has tried more musical genres than you might imagine

That might sound like a fairly stupid thing to say: Aphex is nothing if not experimental and has tried his hand at everything from murky ambience to throbbing techno over the years. He’s also come up with a great deal of music that essentially defies genre.

New York City house, however, is not a style you would ever associate with Aphex Twin. But there, on SoundCloud, is “Ny Groove2," a track that borrows the wandering bass and piano lines of Nu Groove era NYC house music. It’s something of a surprise, not least to blogger RareAFX who has marked the track as “potentially not RDJ” according to the We Are the Music Makers Google Doc. It’s true, the track doesn’t sound much like the Aphex Twin we know. But why, you wonder, would he upload it if it wasn’t his work?

“Dulcimer Dub,” a laid-back, rambling groove of a track with a sauntering dub bass line is similarly atypical—although SoundCloud commenters have identified “Same shaker sound as ‘Girl/Boy (18 Pound Snore Rush Remix)’.” Bless them.

RDJ is not averse to recycling

While some of the SoundCloud tracks may sound rather unexpected, others are very familiar indeed. A handful of the SoundCloud tracks have, in fact, already been released and tracked down by the diligence of the We Are the Music Makers crew. “Space Beat” is in fact the Aphex Twin mix of “Buck Tick’s In the Glitter,” released on both Buck-Tick’s シェイプレス and 26 Mixes for Cash; “moodular3[live gig]” was released on 1995’s Universal Indicator Green; and “Japan” is the “Polygon Window remix” of Soft Ballet’s “Sand Lowe from 1993,” give or take a few minor background noises. “T13 Quadraverb” and “T08+4,” meanwhile, were both previously released with the Syrobonkers interview and on the @richarddjames SoundCloud.

There are a few alternative versions of old Aphex Twin songs too, including the “Dark Version” of “Girl/Boy” (now deleted from SoundCloud, sadly), a remix of “Donkey Rhubarb” and a live version of the classic “Heliosphan.”

“Symbonsad” is a slower version of “Q-Chastic’s Cat 002,” a track that originally appeared on 1992 compilation The Philosophy Of Sound And Machine, and “Mortal 08" is described on the Google Doc as “a faster version of Ventolin Praze An Beeble Mix with some small differences”.

Finally, a number of the SoundCloud tracks are closely related to previously Aphex Twin songs: “Sams Car” is described on the Google Doc as an “early version of Ageispolis; same synth & drums” (although it should be noted that there are still considerable differences between the two songs); “Cmarth [longer]” is an extended take on a section of “Carn Marth,” which appeared on the 1996 Richard D. James album; and the wonderful “(mature raver)” borrows a beat from the lovely “Laughable Butane Bob.”

Young Aphex was a prodigious talent

Among the most useful information to be found on the We Are the Music Makers Google Doc is the era column, where users have made a stab at estimating when some of the 155 tracks were made. In some cases this is pretty easy: “37 [bicycle Wheel]” and “Lush Ambulance 2" both sound highly evocative of Selected Ambient Works 2, for example, and some tracks, such as “Fresher and Cleaner,” have the year of recording included in SoundCloud notes.

It’s fairly easy to identify the earliest tracks among the 155, too: several of them are recorded in low sound quality, with evidence of tape hiss and even, on “SallyVingoe,” what sounds like the tape cutting off. They tend to feature obvious samples too, such as the voice from Kraftwerk’s “Uranium” at the start of “Renalgade Sonar,” or the sample from Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” on “Pink Floyd.” Many of the earlier tracks, such as “Suzanne,” could also have fitted in very neatly on Selected Ambient Works, using a similar palette of synth and drum sounds.

It should, I suppose, come as no surprise that James was a proflic talent: his first album, Selected Ambient Works 85–92, theoretically includes material made when he was just 14, if we take the 85 on face value. But the sheer volume of stunning early material on the SoundCloud, from “Human Rotation” to the wind-up-your-nightie acid menace of “Thy’re Here Aahha” to the outrageous celestial synth funk of “Bonkophone2," is quite remarkable, even if these tracks do something sound like they were recorded underwater on wax cylinder.

There’s a Larry Heard comparison to be made

Legendary Chicago house music producer Larry Heard isn’t a name often mentioned when discussing Aphex Twin. But on the evidence of a couple of exceptional tracks from the SoundCloud dump, maybe it should. “With My Family” is one of the simplest songs on the SoundCloud, just a booming kick drum, hi hats, drum clap and lush synth melodies, which wend in and out, but it delivers a rare emotional heft, comparable to the best tracks of Heard’s Mr. Fingers project.

“Bradley Echoes” is similar, with drums that subtly swing, a melodic yet simple bass line to anchor proceedings and more of those heavenly Heard-like synths. “One of the best tracks I have ever heard,” says philafx on SoundCloud. “how was this never released !!!!” adds user6595913.

How indeed? Well, there was one RDJ 12-inch released under the Bradley Strider name, “Bradley’s Beat” (which this track’s name conceivably refers to) and the two tracks on there are more techno-oriented than much of James’ output (if a lot faster and more aggressive than “Bradley Echoes”).

Could these tracks have been intended for the rumoured Bradley Strider album? We’ll probably never know.

The genius of simplicity

There’s a long and illustrious history of dance music producers making tracks just to test out their new gear—Pete Heller’s “Big Love,” for example, was apparently the result of Heller checking out a new sampler when left alone in the studio.

It wouldn’t be a great surprise were a gear head like Richard D James to do the same: most of the tracks on his recent album Syro were named after the musical equipment they were made on, a principle that appears to extend to some of the tracks here, like “Quad Rave TEAC,” where TEAC is a possible reference to a tape machine.

“T13 Quadraverb” appears to fall into this category. My knowledge of musical gear is elementary at best but the Alesis Quadraverb is apparently “a controllable multi-effects unit with EQ, reverb, delay, resonator, flanger, phaser, ring modulation, etc.”

The track itself is the model of simplicity, featuring just clicking beat and a simple synth line being bent and twisted backwards and forth over three and a half very enjoyable minutes. It sounds, to my ears, very much like James essentially having fun on a new piece of kit.

Whether it is or not, I don’t know. But what it goes to show is that sometimes the simplest ideas can really be the easiest, not a feeling often associated with the fidgety, relentlessly innovative music of Richard D. James. I could listen to this song all day. And probably would, if I didn’t have 154 more to catch up with.

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Ben Cardew

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