Author: Bruce Jenkins  Date Posted:10 May 2024 


How you make sense of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 will depend almost entirely on which direction you are approaching from. If you are a DJ, for instance, the house and techno aspects will leap out, thumping bass and drum patterns often cloaked in fog yet eminently danceable. Fans of chill out and trance, on the other hand, will be beguiled by the melodies, often layered and evolving, drifting through ethereal soundscapes but anchored in muted beats. A third group—those who first encountered electronic music in its mid-1970s analogue days—will find things sounding familiar yet updated. The solo LPs of Edgar Froese might spring to mind, or Klaus Schulze’s pulsating space-scapes. Finally, there will be listeners whose attention is caught by the title. Ambient. That began with Music For Airports, surely? Didn’t Brian Eno, who released the LP in 1978, virtually invent ambient music?

The answer, not surprisingly, is that the man born Richard D. James in Limerick, Ireland, managed to borrow, blend, invent and inspire a whole flotilla of categories of electronic music, with his 1992 Aphex Twin debut still considered one of the seminal works of electronica.

One of the key factors in the enduring popularity of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is the variety contained in its thirteen tracks and seventy-four minute run time. The first two pieces, for example, both feature simple three or four note melodies, but while lead track "Xtal" is driven by a low bass pulse, the second, "Tha" has a jaunty synth pock-pock through-line that could have been lifted from a vintage video game. James’ ability to layer sounds and have sections fade in and out maintains interest in a way beatless synth drifts often fail to do. Completing the first side of this double album is "Pulsewidth", a fine example of the Aphex Twin trick of creating a piece you can chill to, but where the louder you turn it up, the more you want to dance.

If, like this electronica fan, you love French duo Air, you will be delighted by "Ageispolis" which really could be a prototype for Moon Safari… except that the middle section is too sparse, too stripped back for the Gallic romantics. There are contrasts a-plenty on Selected Ambient Works. "Green Calx" has another starbright melody, but also layers of almost industrial loops interspersed with insistent electronic whoops, dives and what sounds very like a bullet ricochet. It’s great, but if this is your music-to-dream-to, good luck.

And so it goes. "Heliosphan" is stately, "Hedphelym" nervy. "We Are The Music Makers" is jauntily insistent, "Schottkey 7th Path" positively threatening. "Ptolemy" channels Kraftwerk for the rave generation. Rather than drifting off into Chillsville, the album finishes with the driving pulse and perky melody-bomb of "Actium".

Aphex Twin has described his music as "braindance" and there is no doubt this classic album will lively up your mind. Writing in 1992, esteemed UK music critic Jon Savage observed:

"The ebb and flow here, between fast and slow, between playful and awful, between moon and sun, holds some of the queasy, constant motion with which we live."

A capacity to sound fresh and engaging more than thirty years on is a remarkable achievement and goes a long way to explain why Selected Ambient Works 85-92 so often appears in lists of the best ambient/electronica albums of all time. If you don't know it, or have forgotten just how entertaining it is... r e l a x... and get a copy.


© Bruce Jenkins—May 2024

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