After a lengthy absence (unless you count his Analord series) and stuff done under another moniker, Richard D James hasn’t released an album since 2001. On that occasion, a double album called Drukqs. Reviews of that at the time were mixed. Personally, I thought it could have been trimmed down to a single disc.
2013 finally sees the release of Syro with its blimp floating over London - itself eerily reminiscent of the same stunt Pink Floyd pulled at Battersea Power Station back in 1977. Within literally seconds, fanboys across the globe were speculating on what it could all mean. A new album after so long? Then mysterious Aphex logos were appearing in major cities across the world - all adding to the hype and mystery that’s needed in our modern age to get people to buy music even from the bigger artists. The logo was everywhere - with fans snapping Instagram shots or posting to Twitter, Social media is a vital part of what is needed these days to sell something. I do pity less well-known artists whose record companies cannot afford such elaborate campaigns. In the future, promotional campaigns for major artists may begin to approach those of Hollywood studios.
Recently, there was a flurry of activity with a kick-starter campaign put together to fund the release of an early collection of material entitled Caustic Window. It’s a great reminder of how Aphex once had a greater penchant for haunting melodies. There is less of that on Syro. It kicks off well enough, with Minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix] - a piece that could easily serve as a showcase for all his separate styles all rolled into one piece of sonic beauty. It’s an album highlight. Unfortunately, there are precious few others. Already, even at this point, I can sense the lower-lip trembling and all-consuming rage that some will feel at the very mention of anything detrimental to their deity. Relax, it's just one guy's opinion.
Of course, if you’re one of the hoards of die-hard Aphex fans who proclaim everything he has ever done as evidence of some kind of electronic genius, a musical Mozart of the modern age, then you’ll likely enjoy every single moment of this album. I'm happy for you.
There is little on Syro that approaches the beauty of ‘Polygon Window’, Matchsticks’, ‘Icct Hedral’ or practically the entire track list of Selected Ambient Works (85-92). What Syro delivers is more of the self-indulgence evident on Drukqs. This is either a good or bad thing depending on your taste. For many, that particular album remains his pinnacle. For me, it was when it all went south.
In a 1990 interview given to ’Sound On Sound’, Brian Eno complained about electronic bands like Tangerine Dream simply spending more time on using an ever-increasing assortment of equipment to the detriment of the output. His argument was that limiting oneself to a Yamaha DX7 or Roland D50 (staple keyboards from that time) meant you could concentrate on the music itself. When I listen to Syro, I am reminded of how that kind of sentiment has fallen on deaf ears. There is even a list of all the equipment used on the album. That may look impressive to other electronic types but the results are less than stellar. Having a battery of expensive vintage equipment at your disposal doesn’t count if you cannot coax real beauty out of it.
However, before I am accused of heresy by the legion of Aphex nerds furiously typing away on message boards, Syro does have some out-standing moments. Apart from the superb first track, there is the truly excellent produk 29  which builds very nicely indeed with a majestic, melodic chord sequence that is exactly what Aphex Twin does best. Another very good piece is PAPAT4 [pineal mix] with Paul McCartney pads in evidence and some nice ethereal synth work in the background.
And for me, that’s it basically. The rest is mostly devoid of any real melody, lots of random bleeps and noises, clever programming and yet cold and emotionless. It’s the sound he has mostly been churning out since the late 1990s. The biggest disappointment for me is often, there is a very short snatch of something nice and then it's gone. Maybe that's the whole point. Brevity means you'll want to listen again. If this is the style of Aphex you like, you’ll be more than happy with Syro.
However, if you prefer his early 1990s output, you may listen to Syro and wonder where all the melodies went. Personally, I liked the stripped back beauty between 1992 and 1996 (minus the Drum & Bass stuff). It was music where simpler drum patterns were complimented by beautiful and haunting melodies. With Syro, the need to cram as much sound into every single moment makes for little more than a sprawling mess. I lost count of the times when I thought: There's a lot going on but it's doing nothing for me.
I freely admit, I love the timeless feel of Matchsticks than the irritating nonsense of Ventolin. After that, it all got very busy and pretentious with Chris Cunningham videos that people talked about more than they did the music. By that point, Aphex Twin had become a brand. He could have released an album of modulated feedback and people would have bought into it if marketed correctly with just the right controversial video.
Syro ends in starkness. After all the skittering samples and frenetic drum pattern tedium, we get a piano piece. I’ve found his ventures into that territory over the years perhaps the weakest of all. This kind of thing is best left to a minimalist like Harold Budd - a composer who can invest emotion in practically every note. Richard D James is a fantastic programmer but his piano work is forgettable. Playing it live (with a real grand piano swinging back and forth like a pendulum) doesn’t turn it into a work of genius. Aphex fans will disagree again, I’m sure.
For Aphex Twin with his reputation and rabid fan base, it must be difficult to please everyone. It's the old conundrum. Do I give them the early style stuff or the later periods of work? As an artist, I admire his ability to avoid falling into that trap - he simply creates whatever he wants, which is exactly what any artist should do. As a composer, the work exists for you first, everyone else comes later
For me, (and I’m definitely in the minority here judging by the other media reviews) Syro is Aphex Twin dining out on his reputation - namely the wonderful electronica he gave the world back in the early to mid 1990s. Take away those achievements and what I’m left with is an album that is a triumph of mediocrity. In a recent interview, Richard D James claimed that the material on Syro represents the end of a certain period, the closing of a musical chapter.
Let’s hope so.