Taking apart and examining any composition by Aphex Twin is like making a four-course dinner for a stop sign. From the Selected Ambient Works period to Come to Daddy’s devious merging of death metal buffoonery and breakbeat insanity, categorizing his work under “electronic” music appears safe, but oversimplified.
The soul of Warp Records, his fondness for undiscovered dimensions of space and time met with his pioneering efforts within the techno genre. Aphex Twin (a.k.a. Richard D. James) became linked to the radical approaches in electronic music fostered by John Cage and Karl Stockhausen. Like The Beatles had for rock bands, James helped to launch 10,000 DJs and electronic artists alike, many of whom today sit in the confines of their bedrooms composing on the same digital audio workstations he uses. His legacy, even before his reemergence in 2014 with Syro, remains intact, largely due to the many acolytes who study each of his pieces bar by bar.
A body of work that comes with a lost period between 2001’s Drukqs and 2014’s prodigal return of Syro, it is with cautious optimism that we proceed any further without mentioning how that lost period connects to his most recent contribution, Cheetah. Producing and recording music under an assortment of monikers, including AFX, his admirers felt confused by his sudden reclusion.
When the Soundcloud handle user4873635300 appeared in 2013, students of Aphex Twin speculated about the possibility of his return. Others knew beyond a shadow of a doubt whose music belonged to the inconspicuous user name. The Soundcloud account included reworkings of older tracks from the Selected Ambient Works (1992) period and outtakes from I Care Because You Do (1995), plus never-before-heard compositions. In James’ Soundcloud account were clues leading fans to not only the inevitability of his return, but undiscovered planets of sound he prepared in his lab during those reclusive years.
Syro broke, and the Prodigal Controllerist returned. He marked the album with nostalgic references to Richard D. James (1996) and Drukqs, while coding new neuropathways with relevant resonances of electronic music’s present. The album’s opening track “minipops 67” exercised the use of the beloved vocoder over uncomplicated rhythms and minimalistic synths. Even with the uptempo, modular synth swells of “CIRCLONT6A,” fans pleased with Aphex Twin’s reentry offered lukewarm responses. Like Autechre or Brian Eno, fans of groundbreaking artists expect ground to be broken with each effort.
On the other hand, 2015’s Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments relighted the pathways toward greatness. With piano played and looped over wordless excursions at irritable paces, the sounds felt fresh again. He toys with filters and prepared piano pieces on “Penty Harmonium.” Each piece exists in such short expanses of time like short-lived flowers during a frosted spring. Warm, but calculated, it is peerless in a time when the perception of electronic artists as push-button programmers of EDM are not even seen as musicians.
Cheetah continues the descent into peerless places, wrapping one arm firmly around sequential digital bliss and the other around analog warmth. “CHEETAHT2 [Ld spectrum]” opens the EP with tiny nods to Tubeway Army synth timbres and melodicism, as well as Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine grooves. The track establishes a tenuous mood, lurking between ominous cityscapes and the indifferent people who occupy them. Indebted to Ultravox’s dirge tonality minus their new wave histrionics, “CHEETAHT7b” illustrates an eeriness familiar to fans of Aphex Twin, but in an entirely new setting for him.
A strange shift emerges in Cheetah’s development. Two tracks, “CHEETA1b ms800” and “CHEETA2 ms800,” appear then disappear in just over a minute. Both of them insert themselves into the narrative like unwelcomed guests—pieces better placed in user4873635300’s catalog. If they fit, then they only fit as a reminder that with James, everything is asymmetry. Aphex Twin prides himself on aural discomforts, and everything is never in its right place.
The album resumes with song titles that part ways with Cheetah’s previously detected patterns. “CIRKLON3” infuses contemporary Aphex Twin glitchcore blips and gated bleeps randomly sprinkled during the eight-minute 808-fueled beat. The 808 claps remind us that techno’s past is not that far removed. James loops rhythms relative to the original theme only to interrupt it with an off-beat pattern and bent pitches that press leaves his own fingerprints on top of those who came before him. The album’s closer, “2X202-ST5,” conjures the same allusions to techno’s forefathers, with eurorack bass synths and melodies that extort memory and senses alike.
Where James decides to take his fans, they will follow. They have already been off of the cliff, into the ether, and back from sabbatical. If Cheetah was his last public offering, then it would suffer from the same wonderment that Drukqs provided, which was “This cannot be it?” Alone, and under a different name without any publicity or infamy, Cheetah slips through the many portals of electronic subgenres and, more than likely, would never be heard. Because an infamous context exists behind a prolific body of work, Cheetah expounds on James’ ability to find comfort in being perpetually unsettled.
Notable Tracks: “CHEETAHT2 [Ld spectrum]” | “CHEETAHT7b” | “CIRKLON3”