The Cult of Aphex Twin

April 18, 2019

Last week, Aphex Twin sold out Brooklyn’s Avant Gardner — a venue with space for over 3.000 people — at over $200 a ticket. While such prices are customary for front-row seats to concert productions like those of U2 and Coldplay, it is rare for a DJ to charge fans such large sums of money. For FX, as his name allows to be abbreviated, it is simply a matter of supply and demand. You have either never heard of him (and find his practice preposterous) or you are “his biggest fan” and follow his every footstep; there hardly is any middle ground. So who exactly is this mythical creature? 


 [ Windowlicker - Aphex Twin, 1999 ]


Aphex Twin, a.k.a. Richard David James, is a Cornish (UK) electronic music producer, composer, and DJ, most famous for his two late-90’s music video hits: Come to Daddy (1997) and Windowlicker (1999). Both were co-produced with Chris Cunningham, who featured James’ not-all-too-handsome face on nearly every character in the clip. Especially for women and children this resulted in a rather horrific scene. His music, however, is no less horrifying than his face.


When I once described Aphex Twin’s two-hour live set at London’s Field Day Festival as “pure noise”, musicologist Lydia Goehr responded with a simple yet striking: ‘well what exactly is pure noise?’ Is it complete rhythmic entropy? Or does it have to do with the randomness of sounds surrounding us? Baffled at this response, I revoked my claim and quickly deemed FX’s set as musical after all; despite how noisy it gets at the end.


 [ Aphex Twin live @ Field Day Festival London, 2017 ]


On hindsight, this is what now occurs to me is the essence of Aphex Twin’s success. Having proven himself and his avant garde qualities in de past, he can get away with almost anything now. According to his dedicated fanbase he is the King Midas of electronic music and all the synths he touches produce golden outcomes.


The crux here is of course that his reputation as experimental artist allows him to (purposely) make mistakes, which only reinforce the experimental character of his music. When his music does not sound smooth, it’s a good sign; when his music does sound smooth, he is simply heading in a different direction. His history has presented FX with the most convenient of reputations: a free-pass to mess with the audience. Whatever he plays or makes, it’s Aphex. So it has to be innovative. 


 [ Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (full album) - Aphex Twin, 1992 ]


James made a name for himself early on and still benefits from it; something most long-gone supernova’s can only dream about. From his early ambient works (under the alias Polygon Window) that helped develop techno when it still was in its infancy, to his return after nearly a decade-long sabbatical with Syro in 2014, he has been sure to receive five-star reviews for most of his repertoire. As the master of controlled chaos who presents us with a sound so seemingly raw yet so ahead of its time, James remains the face of experimental electronic music. Albeit a not-all-too-handsome face.

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