Monday, December 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "DrukQs" by Aphex Twin


So remember Aphex Twin? He was a big deal at one point, that particular point being the late 90s. It was right around then that this shockingly prolific artist went from being a sensation in modest underground dance circles to being something much bigger than that - the weirdly-grinning face of the new post-rock world that the turn of the milennium was supposed to bring. More than any of the other shining lights of 1990s electronic music, it was Richard D. James (the only one of this man's many names that was given to him by his parents) who seemed to embody the spirit of the times, name-dropped as a formative influence and reviewed in all the right places.

And it's odd. Aphex Twin never made that big breakthrough into the mainstream, but it's tough to imagine any other person whose music is so extreme coming that close to the 'big time'. I mean, Aphex Twin's music is messed up. It's dance music you can't dance to, headphone music at times you can barely listen to.

DrukQs was Aphex Twin's first album under that name of the 21st century. And amazingly, a full decade later it remains his most recent. It's tough to know what Aphex Twin wanted to accomplish with this baffling album, but the critical drubbing and subsequent semi-retirement suggest either that he failed at it, or that he succeeded spectacularly at engineering a Dylanesque exit-stage-right act of self-sabotage. Could DrukQs be Aphex Twin's Self Portrait? Only James himself could possibly know for sure, and there's every chance that he doesn't either. Interesting, though, that it was the preceding album, I Care Because You Do, that had a very similar-looking self-portrait on the cover, and that this was the first release in a while not to prominently feature his grinning face.

What does this album feature? Well, it's thirty tracks over two CDs, but they're not stuffed full: they average only fifty minutes each, and the high track number is due to the number of shorter, fragmentary pieces that outnumber the longer beat-freak workouts. Almost half of these pieces aren't exactly electronic music at all but are two-minute pieces for piano, standard or prepared. A good number are brief random snippets or half-songs too, mixed in alongside the percussive blasts of what, for old time's sake, we might as well call 'Aphex acid': incredibly hyperactive abrasive sonic attacks that somehow still manage to compel.

Reviewers weren't kind. The disparate nature of the album - masterpieces mixed rather randomly alongside throwaways, flow constantly interrupted by regular mood shifts - reminded reviewers of contract-finishing vault-clearances. 'He's raided his hard disc for unfinished bits and pieces', they surmised. I don't quite agree - I see too much accomplishment on these two discs to believe that it was thrown-together. James very clearly is, however, working the shuffle-mode mood-juxtaposition concept for all it's worth, to the degree that an uncertainty what will happen at any given time is a part of the listener's experience of this record. If it's not Self-Portrait, then, call it James's White Album. And like that album, it's especially rife for a fan-made single-disc compilation.

Am I a fan? I think so. I found this music confounding, but I ultimately found it rewarding. You do have to be in the mood for it, and at times I found myself frustrated with the indulgences on display even on the twelve songs I selected. But one thing this album does do is reward repeated play. The ludicrous song titles, repeated left-turns into strange territory and lack of commercial consideration inspire the listener to disregard the project at first - something I think contemporary reviewers did - but given time the listener grows attached to any number of songs, which suddenly feel remarkably distinct from each other, despite their names. Had the reviewers played DrukQs a few more times than they likely did, I'm sure they'd have been kinder to it.

After all, perhaps it did meet the purpose James had set out for it. A good number of these ditties have ended up accompanying all sorts of televisual projects or sampled on other artists' work. So it has had a cultural effect, refreshingly devoid of the breathless 'future visionary' doggerel that had started to follow its creator, everywhere he went.

DrukQs

Side one
  1. Avril 14th (1:55)
  2. Jynweythek (2:14)
  3. Cock/Ver10 (5:17)
  4. Vordhosbn (4:42)
  5. 54 Cymru Beats (5:59)
  6. Btoum-Roumada (1:56)
Side two
  1. Afx237 v.7 (4:15)
  2. Ziggomatic 17 (8:28)
  3. Meltphace 6 (6:14)
  4. Orban Eq Trx4 (1:27)
  5. Hy A Scullyas Lyf A Dhagrow (2:09)
  6. Kesson Dalef (1:18)

Jynweythek: keep (side one, track two)

This is the first of six prepared-piano pieces on the disc, which essentially means a normal piano that has had objects attached to its strings in order to alter the timbre of the piano. As an electronic composer whose genre tends to worry more about sound than melody, it's no surprise that James might find a piano's limited timbral range confining. Yet prepared piano projects tend in my opinion to upset the balance too much, to the extent that we wind up listening to the noises and missing the music.

As critics complained, the original DrukQs was programmed largely as if the product of an MP3 player on shuffle mode. That being the case, then, no specific arrangement that relied on juxtaposition could be any better or worse than the original. Perhaps, then, to be contrary, I took the opposite approach and programmed my single-disc quite deliberately: the main idea was to programme all of the electronic tracks back-to-back in more-or-less descending order by BPM (fast to slow), putting one 'clean' piano piece and one treated piano piece each at the beginning of the program and at its end. So this particular piece, one of two prepared piano pieces to make the cut, comes at the beginning, a curtain-raising intro before the percussive onslaught. But unlike the double, not the very beginning but track two.

Vordhosbn: keep (side one, track four)

The first electronica piece is a skittish D&B piece, cut-up drums flying all over the place and lathered in a thick slab over top of what is otherwise a mellow midtempo piece. D&B to me has always been about that juxtaposition between the mellow and the sonic onslaught - a chill-out room next door to a construction jackhammer. This piece is remarkably easy to listen to, challenging and compelling without ever becoming grating. D&B might be mere ancient history by now, but that doesn't stop us from musing that they don't make 'em like this anymore.

A hyperkinetic D&B piece, by rights this should go on side one, with its other superfast brethren. And so it does, as track four, sandwiched between two longer pieces.

Kladfvgbung Micshk: lose

Another prepared piano piece, the individual notes being almost as percussive as melodic and the song title as redolent of someone randomly hitting typewriter keys as the music itself. This attempts an unsettling cinematic feel, but it ultimately feels too gimmicky to really register. The prepared piano pieces, despite the noise they reliably bring, wind up succeeding or failing on the strength of their melodic content. And 'Jynweythek' winds up being more melodic.

Omgyjya-Switch7: lose

A 'switch', in addition to being a kind of button for turning things on or off, is a kind of whip. An this particular piece is filled with ugly sounds that seem whip-like to me. Ugliness is throughout this rather extreme electronic piece, and while at times it intrigues, by and large getting through the piece as a listener requires too much effort and offers too little reward.

Strotha Tynhe: lose

Without he 'preparations' to enhance the weirdness levels, Aphex Twin's 'traditional' piano pieces on this album are quite shockingly conventional. It seems as if Richard D. James is very determinedly writing himself a post-Aphex future in the 'classical' world with these pieces, and while he's perhaps not 'there' yet, he displays a talent for it that is quite impressive, given how far removed it is from Aphex Twin's already eclectic range of genres. There's not much, though, to distinguish one piece from another, as by and large they are competent but uneventful. This one is sparse, with moments of pure silence, and ends quite unresolved. But that's all I can report. Pretty, sure, but just pretty.

Gwely Mernans: lose

The collision on this album of breakbeat electronica and gentle piano pieces largely overlooks Aphex Twin's first real claim to fame: post-Eno ambient electronica, of which he has several albums' worth of examples. This particular piece is as close as DrukQs gets to that genre, and it is indeed 'ambient', an atmospheric collection of barely-there background sounds. It might be an attractive piece if it weren't for James's decision to drown the whole piece under an unrelenting nausea-inducing sub-bass rumble. Like a clever joke gone terribly wrong, this piece is all but impossible to listen straight through, from beginning to end - without, I suppose, succumbing to some unfortunate form of hysteria.

Bbydhyonchord: lose

The album gets deeply weird hereabouts, as the five-minute rumble is followed by a giggle-inducing two-and-a-half piece built around only the tackiest of synthesised congos and handclaps. It sounds like something straight out of 1985, and if that was the intent, then bravo. But remind me why I'd want to listen to it more than once?

Cock/Ver10: keep (side one, track three)

Unlike its two face-covered predecessors DrukQs was not promoted in a traditional way. There were certainly no user-friendly remix-laden CD singles featuring album 'highlights' baited with clever MTV-favourite videos. The closest Aphex Twin came to a 'single' was the pairing of this track with '54 Cymru Beats' on a 12-inch. Presumably, then, Aphex Twin and Warp Records figured that if anything would fill a dancefloor, this would. I would have to agree. DrukQs might be history's least danceable 'dance album', but this piece staggers along in a compelling beatwise fashion, attractive and enjoyable without ever getting especially grating. The best electronica contender this album offers for inclusion on the inevitable Aphex Twin's Greatest Hits disc, this obscenely-titled piece is an easy contender here as well.

It's perhaps not the fastest piece on the disc, but seeing as it's the 'hit', I front-load it all the same, as track three on side one, or the first 'proper' track after two warm-up intros.

Avril 14th: keep (side one, track one)

By leaps and bounds the best-known piano piece here, the gorgeous 'Avril 14' probably earned its fame in perpetuity when Kanye West chose to build a song from his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy disc around it, an event that probably thickened Aphex Twin's pocketbook a fair amount. The song, which in my arbitrary classification is 'clean' piano even though there are two distinctly different timbres on display, is worth its celebrity, being a melodic and moving piece, well-structured and (amazingly for this album) hummable.

I love this track, and it was largely my desire to put it at the very beginning that inspired my entire programming logic. So there it is: side one, track one. My first 'taste' of what's to come, even if it doesn't resemble 'what's to come' very much.

Mt Saint Michel + Saint Michaels Mount: lose

The second-longest piece on the whole double-album is an almost comically hyperkinetic display of drum-programming wizardry. Its beat-mania explains why it was chosen to feature in one of two short films made by Chris Cunningham with music from this album, 'Monkey Drummer'. Unfortunately, that clip, like this song, seems more fascinated by intricate drum patterns than by anything else. While over the course of eight minutes, this piece does develop into something a bit more musical than mere rattling percussion, it's too little too late. It's like listening to someone play with a drum machine.

Gwarek2: lose

This confounding piece is almost seven minutes of random sound effects - not an ambient song at all or even a series of sound textures, it sounds like someone had accidentally left a tape recording in the corner of the scariest room in the universe. God knows what's going on at any given time, but as the minutes pass by the genuinely unsettling ambiance starts to grate on the nerves, especially after lengthy passages of what sounds merely like someone dragging something along a metal banister, or else complete silence. Nothing you'll need to hear twice.

Orban Eq Trx4: keep (side two, track four)

After six and a half minutes of noises, suddenly a return to music. Of sorts - like 'Mt. Saint Michel' before it, this brief 90-second snippet is more interested in the beat than in music, but at least it's a profound enough beat, a deep, rattling midtempo thing more suited to trip-hop than typical Aphex clattering noises. I find it quite enjoyable, even if it's hardly revelatory and indeed gives off the vibe of being a half-finished thing thrown onto the album to fill it up.

So why am I including it? Well, I genuinely like the feeling it invokes, and it adds a bit of variety - even if, as a slower piece, it winds up near the end of the album, where things are already getting more eclectic. It's actually how I end the 'album proper', with nothing but piano pieces to follow it - the final electronic tune, the last drumbeat. Side two, track four.

Aussois: lose

A few seconds of two or more voices talking. It's distorted, but I could probably make out what they were saying. If I cared enough to try.

Hy A Scullyas Lyf A Dhagrow: keep (side two, track five)

I listened to all of the piano songs on these two discs with an open mind, trying to avoid the impulse of decrying them as 'all the same'. And I certainly did give all of them a chance. So I can't explain why all four of the piano pieces I selected wound up coming from the first disc and none from the second. This particular piece has a beguiling melody and a sturdy song structure to it - so much so that the preparations cease to be especially noteworthy. They're not that radical anyway, merely giving each note a bit of a percussive tone. So instead it's the melody we tune in on. And a fine one it is, too.

Except for the few seconds of whispering, Aphex ends his first disc almost exactly how I end my only one, with the same three pieces. Fancy that. Anyway, this is side two, track five.

Kesson Dalef: keep (side two, track six)

At barely longer than a minute, this (unprepared) piano piece is brief, almost snippet-like. But it feels fully developed. It's a truly impressive piece, feeling every bit the equal of classical greats. It's an étude, I suppose, but I can't be sure of that because I don't know the first hing about classical music. If I did, I could probably put into words just what about the melody line here is so fraught with emotion, so compelling. I can't though, so we're left to just be moved by it, without knowing why.

All in all, I don't think the piano pieces do that much to add to the overall quality of DrukQs. Mostly they merely break up the flow of what could be a pretty interesting electronic album. But the two unprepared piano pieces I chose, 'Avril 14th' and this, truly are special, beautiful pieces perfectly worthy of opening and closing the album. This, and not some electronic click-and-whir, is what I choose to end the album with - as track six on side two.

54 Cymru Beats: keep (side one, track five)

The first track on the second disc and the other track on the album's 'single', this rather hysterical piece got rather good reviews while critics were panning the album as a whole. I can see why - it is truly a journey, a piece that can't stand still as it samples all manner of speaking toys and moves from mood to mood. And you could almost dance to it if you tried - like its 12" partner "Cock/ver10", it's a relatively user-friendly piece, enjoyable without getting too extreme. Well, for the first four and a half minutes, anyway. The last minute and a half is a rather painfully extreme attempt at eardrum-bending, with high-pitched feedback-like noises all over the place.

I was tempted not to include the track for that very reason. Then, however, I thought I would include it, but let it conclude side one, so that you could lift up the needle earlier, if you wanted to. And I didn't even wind up doing that either, though I came close. Instead, it's second-to-last, side one track five.

Btoum-Roumada: keep (side two, track five)

And a little Christmas cheer for all of us... this is a rather formless two minutes of what sounds like a sampling keyboard's take on church bells, chiming out what might be a Christmas carol. It would be nice if it actually cohered into something hummable, but it's still an intriguing thing.

Probably not intriguing enough to include, but I think the varied texture made me want to toss it in the mix. Closing side one (as track six) with it, letting it follow '64 Cymru Beats' just as it does on the double, requires me to entirely break my 'plan' for the sequencing of my album. It's a long and boring story, but it's here for reasons more to do with track lengths than anything else. So after three tracks of manic beats on side one, suddenly there's two minutes of church bells. Then you turn the record over to experience another electronic sonic onslaught. And that's just the way it is.

Lornaderek: lose

Our little Richie's mum and dad sing happy birthday into his answerphone, and somehow here I am a decade later in another country listening to it. Aw. It's so sweet I just might vomit.

QKThr: lose

This track is also called 'Penty Harmonium', which gets the instrument right anyway. It's a harmonium, and an old and squeaky one, evidently. But James has forgotten to actually write anything that we'd want to hear played on a harmonium. Instead, he just plays around with it for a bit, the third track of WTF in a row.

Btoum-Roumada: keep (side two, track five)

Drum and bass music tends to clock in at 160 bpm or so - which is spasmodically fast for a dance song, but it also double-time for 80 bpm, a slowish tempo with a sensuous and soulful feel. This dichotomy between gabba-gabba fast and heartbeat-slow lies at the heart of all of the best D&B pieces. This perhaps isn't even a D&B piece, since they tend to be fast-with-slow-elements, whereas I would categorise this as slow-with-fast-elements. It's a pretty sophisticated groove which, over six and a half minutes that feel much shorter, feels a lot more sleepy than the thudding beats on top would indicate.

That's certainly why I put it on side two, as part of the gradual 'wind-down'. It is indeed music that I can picture you not dancing but sitting to. Chill-out music, despite the tempo. The third track of side two and the final lengthy piece.

Bit 4: lose

A little bit of noise carries on for 20 seconds. For no good reason.

Prep Gwarlek 3b: lose

If the name is anything to go on (and it probably isn't), this is a kind of kin to the similarly-named 'noise' piece on disc one, but with that 'prep' in the name perhaps suggesting 'prepared piano'. Truth be told, I have no idea what this is. It sounds to me like all of the preparations, none of the piano. It sounds, in fact, like the mechanisms of a piano, thumping and squeaking as they move, with none of the sounds of the piano themselves. If that is indeed what we're hearing here, then while that makes for an interesting sonic experiment, it doesn't make for anything more than that.

Father: lose

And then the piano itself, with none of the preparations. Here it's a piece made out of a series of unusual chords played in blocks, no melody anywhere to be heard. It's pretty, I guess, but it's not overly enjoyable. And it's not even a minute long.

Taking Control: lose

While not quite as outré as Bbydhyonchord on disc one, this seven-minute electro workout still seems rather surprisingly retro. or is that 'generic'? Surely not: there's a decent amount of invention here, but there's also a fair amount of repetition here, as if a robot had taken control of the drum machine after all. In, say, 1994. The minutes pass but there's not really all that much to show for it. Even if poor old Lorna and Derek show up again.

Petiatil Cx Htdui: lose

Back to the piano, for a bit of a muddy piece that has attractive fragments of melody but not enough definition really to cohere. I'll grand that its directionless moodmaking is 'dreamy', perhaps a bit wistful or even nostalgic. But while it's not bad, it doesn't really stand out either. Not on an album that has a dozen piano interludes.

Ruglen Holon: lose

The piano bits are coming hard and heavy as we enter the long shadows of this double-disc. Another prepared piece, and this time out it's all about the preparations. There is not a single percussion instrument here and yet 'percussive' is the end result. You get the sense that the piece was composed entirely around the odd noises generated by whatever it was James stuck on the piano strings. This particular track is rather like trying to make music on a typewriter: intriguing, but not melodic enough to actually be interesting.

Afx237 v.7: keep (side two, track one)

The other of two short films by Chris Cunningham soundtracked to material from this album was the incredibly disturbing 'Rubber Johnny', a six-minute experimental piece that uses this song to accompany what I can only presume is the flight of fancy of a deformed, handicapped shut-in. It's to the not-always-pleasant grooves of this particular bit of weirdness that the titular Johnny frantically contorts his limbs and, later, bashes his head against the camera in rather horrifically graphic detail. As a song, it's a bit lacking, though it has its moments. Like much of DrukQs, I find I have to be in the mood to truly 'get' it; when I'm not, it seems rather sadly routine.

Still, when I'm 'feeling' it, I get enough value from the sonic onslaught that is this song to have included it. On side two, no less, which makes little sense when you consider how thumping this track is. But I use it to begin side two, by which point in our gradual slow-down, we evidently haven't progressed very far.

Ziggomatic 17: keep (side two, track two)

At eight and a half minutes long, the longest track on the disc is this manic head-rush of a song. It's a pretty 'epic' journey from one sonic soundscape to another, an intricate combination of music elements buried beneath the relentless beats. Somehow, the whole thing - even those spasmodic drumbeats and the oddly Kraftwerk-like ending - seems curiously warm and comforting. It never gets especially 'dark', and as a result, it winds up with a curiously optimistic glow, that you'd almost call 'celestial' as it fades out to a sincere computerised voice saying, 'that you for your attention, bye'.

All of which conspires in its own way to make this a good album closer. James didn't put it there exactly, but since it's the last electronic composition before two piano pieces (hey! he stole my idea!), effectively it is a closer. It's not for me, though; in fact, far from it. It's my track two on side two.

Beskhu3epnm: lose

The last prepared piano piece here is one of the least interesting. The preparations are percussive, and to that end something approaching a beat is conjured from the notes being played. Interesting, I suppose, but not very exciting. Then, at around the half-way point, even that goes away, and the song becomes even less exciting.

Nanou2: lose

The title of this piece implies it's a sequel to 'Nannou' from the 'Windowlicker' single. Yet it is in fact one final 'pure' piano piece, a moment of serenity with which to close out the album. It's by some distance the longest of the piano pieces on DrukQs. It's atmospheric, and a pleasant way to conclude this hundred-minute embarrassment of riches, but ultimately a bit too repetitive to merit inclusion on my slightly more disciplined single-length.

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