Thursday, May 14, 2009

18. Selected Ambient Works 85-92 - Aphex Twin, 1993 (Best of the 90s)

Selected Ambient Works 85-92

Aphex Twin
R & S Records.

The overwhelming sensation apparent when hearing Richard D. James' now seminal Selected Ambient Works isn't casual enjoyment or pure elation. It's closer to bemusement – a complete lack of understanding – when I consider myself an ardent fan of electronica yet never heard this recording until its long-awaited 2008 remastering. Now part of my hesitation has always been the price-tag attached to both original records (Classics and Selected Ambient Works), although to be fair to us consumers, these remasters are indeed pricier. To boot, R & S offers no bonus tracks, no expanded artwork, no liner notes of any kind.

It reads like a rip-off, and would be if not for two important notes: Selected Ambient Works, in its original release, was in desperate need of remastering from the moment it was recorded, and secondly, fans of home-listening electronica need to hear how little their genre has truly evolved over the past twenty years. It's humbling, almost insulting, really, that Pantha Du Prince's This Bliss could stir such critical love in 2007 when early Aphex tunes, new to my ears, sound as innovative and accomplished (the two respective artists' aesthetic differences aside). Having found two copies of the original Selected Ambient Works abandoned to used bins (on the week of this remaster's release, no less), I can attest that its digital cleansing takes much of the credit for the record's contemporary sound. Even with the dated keyboard effect that opens 'Ageispolis', the song is a cunning mix of acid-jazz noodling and wintry soundscapes that could fit snugly onto the 2008 catalog of any electronic label.

What shook me most about this collection is how smooth it sounds as opposed to James' later work under the Aphex moniker, as though his career path has unraveled in reverse to most every other act. Instead of each release becoming increasingly coherent and polished, Selected Ambient Works (and its sequel, Ambient Works II) is likely the summit of his production in terms of pristine clarity; a peak visible years before James undertook even less conventional routes. Opener 'Xtal' is a glacial cut of dense beat patterns, gorgeous vocal loops and subtle keyboards layered overtop. The whole five minutes feel better suited to a Chill-Out mix, one admittedly of higher caliber than the average Thievery Corporation/Moby/Zero 7 collection, and it is singular in its breezy evocation, all of Selected Ambient Works runs on the same template: haunting keyboard melodies, beat programming that never shifts tempo, and several ideas dedicated to each track. No hints of the glitch-happy assaults from the Richard D. James album, and none of the monotony that plagued Drukqs is evident here. In many ways, this is Aphex Twin before Rick James, adolescent outsider, became Richard D. James.

Although the two tracks I've discussed and adore the most are pioneers for the current home-listening electronica scene, much of this material is better translated on the dancefloor than in an armchair. 'Heliosphan' anticipates the big-beat scene of the late 90s as if it was a hidden track on the Matrix soundtrack, while 'Schottkey 7th Path' can only be fully explored in the club; its subtle keys and overbearing repetition hard to appreciate on your home stereo. Despite its reputation, this album is hardly perfect; there are enough skeletal experiments to counter the fully-realized ones, which, running seventy-four minutes long, is to be expected for such groundbreaking work. Occasionally it wears thin, but never relies on any musical pillars we could call familiar.

Beyond the analog version's two dimensional sound, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is essential, not only because it captures a teenage genius, resigned to his bedroom and struggling with the creation of a new genre – far removed from the mysterious, creepy Richard D. James of present day – but because this is revolutionary listening; a preview of tricks that would become cornerstones to everything from trance and hardcore to minimal electronica. It may be hard to find at a bargain, but Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is a crucial puzzle-piece in the history of its genre, and in my eyes, worth every penny.

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