Aphex Twin’s latest EP, titled Collapse is the most forward thinking release from him since the 2001 two-disc monster Drukqs. Since Richard D James’s concrete return to the Aphex Twin name back in 2014, it’s been nice to hear him back creating the sounds he’s known for, but it’s all been lacking something of the crackling psychedelic energy much of his groundbreaking and disruptive early material exhibited.
Aphex Twin was always connected both to a blind playfulness of aesthetic and a certain relishing of breakdown. Increasingly through his 90s output the beats became more fractured, more hellish, more difficult to pin down, and even more difficult to dance to. By the time we got to Drukqs territory we were staring out at a beautifully broken, Ballardian landscape of cybernetic distortion and yelped hints of humanity lurking behind jagged rhythmic perversions of form. The link was created between the John Cage-esque prepared piano compositions and some of James’s most minimal pieces yet, with the hyper-stimulation and abrasive acceleration of the senses found as much in many of the track titles as the dense and uncompromising audio barrage of the more intimidating tracks. Not only were these presented on the same album, but one led directly into the other, flipping perception on its head and compiling the shear of atmospheres into a distinctly psychedelic breakdown of audible reality.
This game of contradictions is one RDJ played masterfully, creating both some of the most beautiful slices of electronic music out there in tracks like Alberto Balsam and Xtal, as well as some of the most abrasive (Ventolin and Come to Daddy) under the same name. Contradiction presented itself in the confounding of taste and expectation in the visuals, the twisting of bling era hip-hop aesthetics in the Windowlicker video and his many other collaborations with Chris Cunningham, many of which proved simultaneously nightmarish and hilarious in their absurdly disturbing imagery.
Contradiction, disruption, breakdown.. collapse? This latest EP seems to bring back the element of post-apocalyptic experimental abandon much of his post-comeback material seemed to be lacking. The 5 tracks on Collapse contain some of the most complex, layered Aphex Twin material in quite some time, and incorporate a level of electronic glitch and distorted tone that I was surprised not to hear in his more recent work before now. Taking the dense layers of electronic sound he pioneered as a producer and transplanting a digital virus into their heart, in the first track alone the EP folds the sonic landscape into itself, layer upon layer, to coalesce into a marvellously exciting and driving piece of experimental electronica only increasing in psychedelic intensity when viewed alongside the track’s video, a literal collapsing of digitally projected architecture, landscape, and unsurprisingly Richard D James’s own face.
What this EP achieves is a sound that suddenly retains something current, a return to a bold re-invention of electronic sound and a folding, a decay, of sound into new possibilities. It’s the first Aphex Twin release in quite some time that synthesises and combines contradictory and multifaceted elements in the manner of his best work, lurching from sound to sound in an unimpeded rampage of sonic warfare upon tradition and sensibility that almost reads as a middle finger to the prudes and conservatives who might turn their noses up and sniff at the “cult of ugliness”. At the heart of a digital storm of garbled wavelengths, compressed voices and the intricately controlled chaos of chattering and sputtering beats, such comfortably expressed terms of aesthetic absolutes are shorn of meaning.