Almost as well-known as the music of Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James is James’ well-known proclivity for zigging where any other musician would zag, not just musically but in how James defines and, to put it crudely, brands the Aphex Twin identity. Or maybe more accurately, James’ complete refusal to engage in branding, to do anything that might even mistakenly be taken as straightforward. Some of this has to do with is-he-serious-or-not claims he’s made about owning a tank, living in a bank vault, or dreaming his tracks fully composed during the two lone hours he sleeps a night. But even in 2015 it’s still pretty easy to fuck around with journalists, so that’s less what I want to explore here than the pivot point of a relationship between artist and audience: an album cycle’s creation of artificial scarcity.
By this I mostly mean his recent “maybe it’s him” release of 8.5 hours of music for free download on Soundcloud, but this kind of glut/refusal strategy has been part of James’ arsenal since he elected not just one but maybe a half dozen aliases under which to release tracks in the early to mid-‘90s, some of it acknowledged and some of it not. And this is in response not to want to vary his already varied sound palette, it’s more directly, I’m arguing, a response to people clamoring for more music was his reaction something like “sure, I have a lot more music, but instead of making it easy for you to procure, I’m going to turn it into a kind of treasure hunt.” Keep in mind that this a pre-widespread-visual-interface internet, though, so Usenet groups sprung up where rumors and leads were traded, but the point is that half the experience of hearing new Aphex Twin music, for a while, was the frenzied act of trying to locate some, if not all of it.
Things calmed down a bit in the late ‘90s with James keeping his zig-zag entirely under the Aphex Twin moniker (probably) with releases as disparate as the unclassifiable lurch of I care because you do, over to the prank-gabber of Come to Daddy, the vaguely classical delicacy and elaborations of the Richard D. James album, or the splintery near-pop of Windowlicker, as well known for the wonderfully freaky video that accompanied it than for the track itself.
Then around the turn of the century things two things happened. First, he got interested in switching out his usual analog gear for programming software, resulting in the divisive freakishly hyper-complex Drukqs, and second, he disappeared. There was the Analord project that came and went without much notice and alias The Tuss, which was a Jamesian “Not me, well maybe it’s me, but it’s probably not me, can you prove it’s me?” game and difficult to find. Then last year a 1994 never-bothered-to-release-it master for a twenty-year-old Caustic Window album kicked up considerable dust given all the eBay-bidding it lent to charity, and then a proper frenzy ensued during the blimp and deep web announcement of new actually-Aphex Twin album Syro, which I’ve already written about here, the general expectation being that James crept out of seclusion to dump a more or less self-contained synthesis of a lot of his work, after which he’d disappear again.
We were all wrong, of course, because not only did cryptically-titled EP Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2 arrive, sounding nothing at all like Syro (and no clue where pt 1 went) but at about the same time as the EP’s release an unknown user on Soundcloud uploaded at first about 3.5 hours’ worth of what sounded like early ‘90s rarities and demos, temporarily, soon taken down and posted under a slightly different name, etc., leading to two kinds of chases, first the chase to find the music and second the chase to verify that it was indeed Aphex Twin music. Respectable members of the Brit electronic music scene vouched for authenticity, though of course James ignored it altogether, before, on Feb. 1st, in case you were more interested in having your head wrecked by seriously mental acid techno (and skits about eating dog shit) than you were in watching the Superbowl, a sum of 110 tracks became available for download, a total of 8.5 hours of music. Just to put that into perspective, James’ official output from the prior fifteen years totaled about 3.5 hours; in one day you got more than double that.
All of which leaves you wondering, as James probably would like: what the fuck? The guy is a recluse for about thirteen years and then he’s unloading a glut of mostly album-worthy material for free? There is of course the possibility that some absolutely batshit enthusiast spent two decades buying all the same gear as James and trying to exactly replicate his sounds, but the sheer bulk and variety of it renders that likelihood slim. Plus one of the main things known about James, that people have tried but no one can quite manage to replicate his sound, is in full force here. Just for an example there’s the “Is this a techno track or a parody of a techno track” six-minute “16 fresher + cleaner” which starts off as whip-like scraping noises only to resolve into something resembling a four-four thump held down by an almost-discernible female vocal sample repeated ad nauseum, trademark background and foreground ambiguously tonal synth wobble and, just to make you hesitate, handclaps coming off what sounds like a $20 drum machine plus some snare runs that sound like they came from a drum machine given away for free in great shame, and, of course, winding through all of this, especially toward the end, random stuff that sound like ’77-era Star Wars sound effects.
In my playlist, at least, it’s followed by the radically different but just as complex “39 fnkmrg,” built with the same elements but those elements being entirely different: different synth wobble, percussion coming off a very different drum machine, and what sort of passes as a synth squelch funk bass line, all of it shifting and getting denser and more sophisticated as the track goes on, just like “16 fresher + cleaner” did. (Side note here; in my scrambled playlist this is followed by a slinky mid-tempo piece called, because why not, “parking lot,” which prominently features a looped sample from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”)
All of which is partly to say that if the download’s still available, set aside the question of is it legit or not and grab it because 90% is fucking great. But “still available” meaning that by the time you read this the download might have disappeared, or been moved to a different user name, goosing you into chasing something you’re not even sure is authentic. Let’s examine the other part of this from an economic standpoint. Most artists and bands now release an album every two or three years, nice and tidy, promo machine greased up and ready to go. Let’s pick someone like Taylor Swift, or a less-high-profile group like Swans. Those two acts don’t often get compared, but for each there’s a cycle, though the cycle differs; Swift is locked into the relatively quick cycle of record-release-tour-record, etc., maintaining a constant but highly edited delivery of various kinds of entertainment product. Swans’ cycle differs in that “tour” hardly ever stops and is how a lot of the recordings take shape, and as far as I know Swans have not released a music video featuring twerking, and with Swans there’s less packaging, just a slower cycle of “record” and “release” embedded in tour-break-tour-break etc. Currently we’re seeing Swans 3.0 product about every two years, which is about average unless you’re a top Billboard charter. But again, despite Swans’ wonderfully pulverizing epic recent releases, there’s editing and tweaking (and maybe twerking, you never know) and the presentation of entertainment product.
James is not really adherent to that cycle, but unlike acts like Radiohead, with their surprise-release-and-then-wander-off-into-the-woods-for-three-years strategy, where they’re fiddling with but essentially not changing the cycle, James by comparison isn’t just ignoring that system: he is aggressively grabbing the cycle and flipping it over like a cop car during a riot and torching it. Because even though James might seem like a kind of anti-entertainer, he’s very much engaged with it, not by adhering to it (unless you count things like the Windowlicker video) but playing a game of scarcity and glut that’s both actively disruptive and celebratory when you read James’ actions against a constant steady cycle of entertainment product output, keeping enough scarcity in the system to promote desire for the product. Though they’ve been labeled such by some journalists, the 110 tracks Aphex Twin dumped on Soundcloud for free are not demos, at least most of them, they’re simply tracks, produced whenever or however, he never bothered to release until now. The important thing here is how not only is James pushing both scarcity and product to extremes (he more or less disappears for thirteen years, then unloads a cumulative ten fucking hours of music over the space of about four months) inviting you to play along in both the hunt and the wait, the official product and the questionable alternatives. So scarcity yielded excitement over Syro last fall but instead of disappearing for two (or thirteen) years, another “official” release comes out within four months, an EP that costs more or less as much as a full-length, but the proper scarcity isn’t there, even though the two different official releases sound worlds apart from each other, and then James gives us all one single week to heighten scarcity and then dumps 8.5 hours of music on us, without even acknowledging if it’s him releasing it or it’s his work. This makes us ripe for playing along, again: we might get another full-length in two months, or it might be ten years, and meanwhile now that he’s back on the scene it’s time to go hunting for maybe a dozen other releases, official or not, that might be floating out there under various new aliases already or in the next year or two.
What James is doing isn’t just being kind of a jackass, though, it’s two things: 1) it’s a huge middle finger extended toward the quaint idea of entertainment product delivery cycles, and 2) even more radically, it makes you an active participant in locating legit or otherwise product vs. just clicking a button in iTunes or bit-torrenting something. How James treats the release of his music engages you in something, as a music fan, you haven’t really had to wrestle with since before widespread internet, if you’re old enough to remember what that was like: he provides you with the sense that the amount and nature of product floating around the internet currently is potentially border-less, and he makes the discovery of that product mysterious, and therefore exciting, in a way it isn’t with Taylor Swift or even Swans. James gives you the gift that I personally have not had since reading zines and ordering bands’ CDs based solely on good band names out of catalogs 25 years ago, the gift that when it comes to Aphex Twin’s music, wherever and whatever it is, it’s impossible ever quite completely know what’s going on.
UPDATE: As of this writing the uploaded music amounted to about 8.3 hours of music; now it’s jumped up by 50 tracks to approx. 12.5 hours, all sill available for download, meaning there’s more here now, and probably more coming sometime and from somewhere, anywhere, or everywhere.