CLASSIC REVIEW: Aphex Twin, Selected Ambient Works 85-92
Updated: Feb 18, 2022
Classic Review Speed-Run! I have work in an hour but I spent all of yesterday at work listening to Selected Ambient Works 85-92 by Aphex Twin and writing down my thoughts in my iPhone notes and on the back of a piece of paper. Let’s bring it back to the year it was released for just a moment, 1992. MTV was at its peak of relevance and so was raving. Groups like The Prodigy and 808 State were absolutely massive, inescapable forces of this new movement of electronic sound. While those groups tended to gravitate more towards the spotlight and ended up getting massively popular due to that, other acts found their niches and never let go. Take The KLF, or Ireland’s Aphex Twin for example. Aphex Twin, born Richard D. James was born in the underground and never left. Legend has it that while studying at Cornwall College in England, he DJed numerous secret raves in the Cornish free party scene. According to Wikipedia (my best friend when it comes to speed running classic reviews), his studied and obsessive knowledge in the genres of acid and house brought him to a state where he decided that he wanted to make something of his own. Uninspired by anything, according to him, he dropped his first release in 1991, the Analogue Bubblebath EP under the moniker The Aphex Twin. Right out of the gate, he was coming with heat. I mean, I have still never heard anything as simultaneously as accessible and alien as “Entrance To Exit (with Schizophrenia)”. He was onto something, is my point.
In 1992, Twin really popped the fuck off in a major way. With two stellar EPs for R&S full of rave-ready jams and his first full length LP, SAWs 85-92, he slowly started to become the subject of many think pieces about the changing climate of British electronic music. While the Richard D. James rabbit hole certainly goes quite deep, with multiple projects under different names like AFX, Blue Calx, The Dice Man and Polygon Window, for this review I will focus on his most concise, grounded and accessible release to date. SAWs 85-92 is a blueprint for modern producers, switching between the lanes of ambient and house with each track. The first song, which is also his most streamed, “Xtal”, is all you need to hear to be addicted to his music. The track is 5-minutes of meditative bliss, establishing hardware like the Roland R8 drum machine and the DX100 synthesizer as just a few of his many tools. “Xtal” and many of the other songs on SAWs exist in a space that is between dance and nerdy tinkering, which is colloquially known as “IDM” or intelligent dance music. Other producers in this genre, like Autechre and LFO, were very well known at the time, but Aphex Twin still remains my absolute favorite, and that opinion is grounded in the perfection of this record.
As the record moves along, we start to hear some oddities that point towards a more eccentric future for Twin. Take the odd, repetitive looping of “Tha”, complete with it’s down low whisperings about trains, or “Heliosphan”, a track that feels like drifting a Mitsubishi Eclipse on a lake. Like The KLF, Twin also flirts quite a bit with this genre of stadium house, but does it in his own quirky way. “Pulsewidth” is a song meant to be played to a giant room, with those gorgeous synth melodies and bumping bass. There is a 1996 MTV interview where he talks about being annoyed that people dance to his music at concerts, but how could he be with such a groovy track like my favorite “Ptolemy”. Imagine being off a bean in the 1990s listening to this and NOT dancing? It is so rich, intersecting gurgling synths and serene synth pads with what sounds like MIDI flutes and snappy hi-hats and bells. While the majority of the arrangements on SAWs are quite simple, moments like are special in how they balance so much. As far as the songs themselves go, I tend to drift more towards the ones with bumping bass like “Ageispolis” and the acid fest “Green Calx”, but the most understated moments are just as essential. The Willy Wonka-sampling “We Are the Music Makers” with its jaunty little keys leans more towards the calmer side of things, but it is by no means “ambient”. It still knocks, as does the extremely creepy, shuffling “Schottkey 7th Path”. It’s also worth pointing out that nothing on this album really registers as “ambient” despite the title, it’s trickery on the part of James. It wasn’t until Selected Ambient Works Volume II that he really wholeheartedly went into that direction.
My least favorite song on the album is probably “Hedphelym”, but it’s hard to even knock that considering how deeply influential it probably was. This entire LP falls along those same lines, in my opinion. I would give an A (not an A+) just on a taste level, because compared to his other stuff, it is not as wild, experimental or unpredictable. My favorite Aphex Twin song of all time is “Cock/ver10” from his underrated LP Drukqs, a song that is completely insane and off the wall. It combines drum ‘n’ bass with acid in a way that no artist before or after him has ever replicated so perfectly. However, SAWs is still a GOATed album simply because it is such a blueprint as I stated earlier. It laid down the groundwork for so many artists, including modern ones like Ecco2k. Moments like “Xtal”, “Heliosphan” and “Ptolemy” are these perfect little isolated crystals of IDM that can be played in any setting and sound great. The album as a whole presents a versatile sound that never has and never will get old, it’s a relic of the past that sounds dated yet futuristic at the same time.