Keeping a level head while writing about Aphex Twin's work is difficult. One can throw all sorts of adjectives at the task of describing Richard D. James's stamp on the last twenty years of electronic and popular music, but properly describing James's hyperbolic career necessitates equally hyperbolic praise. The most influential electronic musician of the 1990's? Definitely. One of the most important contemporary modernist classical composers, a true experimentalist in the vein of Messiaen and Kirchner? Almost certainly. Early architect of pop music's ongoing obsession with electronic dance music? I'd say so. In short, one finds oneself wielding all the critical acumen and levelheadedness of a Soundcloud comment.
So what are we, as listeners conscious of James's influence on modern music, supposed to do with Syro, James's first LP as Aphex Twin in more than a decade? It's a powerful album, enthralling in its best moments, yet curiously and unabashedly retro, a bold continuation of a groove he abandoned in the mid-90's with his 1995 release …I Care Because You Do. I Care depicted an artist in transit: James was leaving behind both the ambient sound that had made him famous and the analogue synthesizers that had gotten him there. Syro, too, is a product of transit, but it is a return to form, not a flee from it. James has spent the past decade experimenting well beyond the traditional confines of electronic music--he's been performing alongside Krzysztof Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood, conducting orchestras remotely, and using grand pianos as pendulums. His 2005 Analord series -- 11 EP's worth of experimentation with analogue synths -- and two releases under the pseudonym The Tuss gave us a preview of Syro's sounds: it's lush, crisp, and a product of a [seriously frightening] number of synthesizers. But whereas Analord and the Tuss were relatively inaccessible works, Syro is full of earworms and catchy melodies.
In traditional Aphex fashion, the songs are through-composed yet retain a strong sense of purpose. There's nothing as abrasive as 'Ventolin' or 'Aphex Airlines' but nothing as poppy as 'Windowlicker' or as accessibly beautiful as '4'. And though it is not a record as viciously experimental as 2001's Druqks, Syro still explores places James hasn't visited before. The most prominent sonic change is his usage of extended vocal samples, pitch-bent along with the music so that they function like their own slightly demented instrument. James claims (in what is possibly just another of the vibrant and myriad array of hilarious untruths he has told to the press) that the samples are of him, his wife, and his children, but they sound strangely close to Tuvan throat-singing, or perhaps Twin-Peaks-style backmasking. The songs vary widely in length, tempo, and tone: whereas 'produk 29 ' is a delirious, frothy take on 70's funk sounds, vaguely reminiscent of the Neptunes's weirdest output, 'syro u473t8+e' sparkles and froths with pretty synth tones and splatted, carefree drumbeats.
The final track is the loveliest surprise on the record--'aisatsana ' is a lush, slow, piece for solo piano. You can hear birds chirping in the background. Druqks occasionally dipped into similarly gentle piano compositions ('Avril 14th', famously sampled by Kanye for 'Blame Game'), but it never did so for long. It's hard to imagine the man who made 'Ventolin' or 'Mt. Saint Michel Mix' doing anything quite so human as mellowing out, but Syro seems, at the very least, a conciliatory gesture. Aphex is certainly capable of forcing us to question everything, but faced with Syro the only real question is, "How is this music still so good"?