Aphex Twin's ongoing Analord series has been busily intriguing, confounding, irritating and amazing me over the past few months, as well as hoovering-up all my spare record-buying cash. No matter how many other releases out there seem more 'important', I just can't help giving priority to this bizarre project, which I last wrote about in February after the release of volumes 1 & 2. Interestingly, I haven't noticed many detailed reactions to Analord on the web apart from the odd thing at blogs like Radio Babylon. The Dissensus thread started well, but seems to have petered out. It's as though everyone's just waiting for the big pay-off - that moment where it all starts to make sense and the motivations become clear. I have my personal favourites and least-favourites. Volume 4 was pretty cool, especially "Home Made Polysynth" which features the kind of melodic invention and mood manipulation that we all know Mr. James is capable of. Likewise Volume 6 warmed my heart with the effervescent naivete of "I'm Self Employed" and playful ring modulator 'Radiophonic' experimentation of "2 Analogue Talks". Volume 5 is probably the weakest in the series, although it does feature the best label design (the 'Anna Lord' gravestone). But overall I'd say about 20% is great, 15% is distinctly average and the rest is merely 'interesting'.
So why am I so determined to see Analord through to the bitter end? Well, having spent the best part of a decade (from "Digeridoo" to "Windowlicker") completely under his spell, it's hard for me to simply move on from Aphex Twin. I simply have to hear everything. I suspect that will probably continue for the rest of my and his natural life, 'cos even though I mean nothing to him, the music of Richard D. James is a central piece in the jigsaw that defines who I am. If someone were to ask me what were the defining musical statements of my generation, most of my choices would probably be Aphex's key works. But he's also one of the luckiest people of his generation, too. James arrived in the public eye in 1992 at a time when the demand for experimental electronic music was probably higher than at any time before or since. It's hard to believe that a totally uncompromising triple-album like "Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2" could reach #11 in the UK national album charts. But in March 1994 it did just that. Such an achievement is completely impossible in the current cultural climate and so the latest breed of innovators (you know who I'm talking about) will remain lean, hungry and well-motivated. By contrast, James' lucrative publishing deals will continue to generate substantial income for the foreseeable future. He has the financial freedom to do whatever the hell he likes, which is brilliant for him, but can sometimes be confusing and frustrating for us. Post-"Windowlicker", I'd been feeling that James wasn't really considering the feelings of his massive fanbase. Although it featured some good music,"Druqks" seemed to have been thrown-together without any real care or quality control and by the "Smodgeface EP" the suspicion that he was taking the fucking piss was hard to ignore. There was a time when I would've invested in the Analord binder package without a moments hesitation, but such was my disillusionment at that point that I wasn't prepared to take the chance. As I said at Dissensus, it was as though James wanted the fans to take a financial 'leap of faith', without having any knowledge of the possible quality/contents. My faith had been seriously tested and I wasn't up for it. Would I buy it now? Prrrrobably. The thing is, most of the Analord tracks are pretty decent, it's just the fact that it's him. I'm still not comfortable with this retro stance after he had represented forward-thinking innovation for so long.
I was comparing some of the Analord tracks with older pieces from things like the Analogue Bubblebath series. On the face of it, the approach is quite similar, but the old tracks still seem to sound better for some reason. Perhaps he's just become too good at engineering since then. The Analord work can sometimes sound a bit dry and flat and there's an absence of the subtle distortion that pervaded his earlier mixes. Plus he used to drench things in reverb and fx, really saturating the sound in a way that no one's been able to replicate properly. Also, his beats were always so unique in the past - you couldn't tell where he got most of his drum sounds from (from his head, of course!), whereas Analord is driven by the innocuous sounds of the Roland TR-707/808/909 series,with very little processing or rhythmic invention in the programming. Having said that, perhaps working with these 'naturalistic' Roland sounds could be seen as a refreshing change. I also have a special fondness for the TR-707 (the poor man's 909) as it was the first proper drum machine I ever owned (and there's an example of one of my old 707 analogue concoctions up the the Riddim Composer right now!). Quite a few of these Roland sounds have been infiltrating the dubstep scene - Skream's "Traitor" sounds like it's using 707 hi-hats, though probably from some VST plug-in rather than the original machine - and for some people Analord probably sounds really fresh. This idea was hit home to me when talking with Jamie from Vex'd last month. Being a good 10 years younger than me, he didn't really have any reference points for the Analord sound - to him it was all rather unusual and maybe even a little bit inspiring. So you could take the view that Analord isn't simply a celebration of past glories, but a valid way of bringing the old ideas to a new audience who might develop them and take them into whole new areas of exploration.
Anyway, I'll finish this post by saying that the latest installment, Analord 08, is easily the best so far. There's a real sense that James is pushing things forward here, particularly with the more imaginative drum programming and earnest, heartfelt compositions that raise the imperative levels dramatically. The lack of acid squiggles is a good thing too - there's so many other sounds he could be using, and the dramatic polyphonic (dis)chord that dominates "Backdorr.Berbew.Q" brings a new sense of urgency to the proceedings. It feels like the series is now finally going somewhere; moving steadily towards a satisfying conclusion that will reveal the true nature of this project. But I may be completely wrong on that...