Meta-Review: Considerations Of Musical Invention In Aphex Twin’s “Syro”


In an interview some years ago, the electronic musician Richard James, aka Aphex Twin, once said that he didn’t care much for the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. James pointed out two things: Stockhausen’s music had no groove and no basslines. I remembered both the irreverence and pointedness of that comment recently as I have been listening to–and grooving on–James’ recent return to electronic music, Syro.

Syro is a compelling listen for a few reasons. First, each track grooves hard–not in the generic, boom-boom-boom-boom 4/4 way that so much contemporary electronic music does, but in James’ distinctively loose yet hyper tight and syncopated style. Hard to put into words, but the music has its own sound. Second, each track changes constantly by morphing, developing, unraveling, changing direction, and in general, surprising the ear. Third, each track uses a fairly limited soundset of analog-ish electronic timbres. (James even includes a list of all the equipment used to make this record. Whoah.) The limited soundset acts as a constraint–maybe for the composer, and certainly for us listeners. As we listen, we can follow the sounds–including dry kicks and snare drums, squelchy bass tones, slightly out of tune pads, and delay effects–as they enact their constant changes. It’s in this way that James’ music ranks among the most satisfying out there by literally being a process in constant flux. Finally–and this relates to point two above–the arrangements of sounds and the structure of each track are lean, meticulous, and always seem to create a sensation of balance. Everything just seems so, with nothing extra or unnecessary–be it repeats or a melodic theme. Syro is inventive, groovy, well-designed, and efficient music.


What are others saying about Syro? Here’s a sampling of quotes from some reviews.

From Resident Advisor, here’s Jordan Rothlein:

“Tracks morph, pressurize and reorganize—but never break down, exactly—following a completely unpredictable if utterly natural logic.”

From Pitchfork, here’s Mark Richardson:

“Sixty-five minutes of highly melodic, superbly arranged, precisely mixed, texturally varied electronic music that sounds like it could have come from no other artist.”

From The Quietus, here’s Joe Clay:

“…a master of his machines, an accomplished musician and producer showing off his vast skills.”

From The Guardian, here’s Tim Jonze:

“…every time he playfully mangles a rhythm or throws in a disorientating series of bleeps or robot gargles just to keep you on your toes.”

Another from The Guardian, here’s Piers Martin :

“Everything he creates has a beautiful cohesion to it: whether it’s serene ambient electronica, laser-guided acid, or disconcerting, dystopian glitch, the work clearly comes from a singular mind but one that is not affected by outside trends.”

From The Washington Post, here’s Chris Richards:

“This is a largely instrumental album that creates, obeys and breaks its own rules, seemingly at random. Rhythms establish themselves through familiar configurations and recognizable timbres, then erode and regroup in new patterns. Synthesized sounds are used to signal melody, or texture, or both, or sometimes neither. Everything is tethered to a grid, but nothing feels fixed.”

From the L.A. Times, here’s Randall Roberts:

“As if by stubbornly refusing to acknowledge many aural signifiers and non-Aphex EDM evolutions of the last decade, the artist has presented an utterly human, mostly nonverbal defense of his aesthetic: atmospheric, occasionally funky and meandering instrumental electronic tones, lovingly crafted, with imaginative internal logics.”

From NPR, here’s Tom Moon:

“Where some producers set up a foundational beat and then let it repeat endlessly, Aphex Twin drops in slight changes from one measure to the next.”

And finally, here is James himself talking about musical technologies in a recent interview in Rolling Stone:

“It’s taken people a long time to work these new tools out, and now it’s just now kind of like an acoustic guitar. We’re half-cyborg already, whether we like it or not. Everything is based on computers – our whole economy, and most of our creative pursuits, as well. We’re not physically connected to them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not part of our brains.”

Here is Syro‘s first track: