To the casual observer, Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James might appear miserly with his output. Since 2014’s Syro, which marked the veteran electronic trickster’s return after 13 years of (near) silence, he had until now put out only six official releases, all EPs, and three of them essentially marginalia: One gathered sketch-like experiments with drumming robots, while another compiled unreleased club tracks, and a third dusted off a 1995 Peel Session. Whole electronic subgenres have flourished and cratered in the five years since the latest of his post-Syro EPs, 2018’s Collapse.
But to the legions of fans who obsessively follow James’ every move, we’re in a wildly fecund era of Aphexeana. Since Syro, visitors to the Aphex shop have been treated to Drukqs outtakes, archival rarities, and even a cryptic set of ambient-adjacent etudes. Most enticingly, he’s dangled occasional tour-only drops for showgoers in Japan, Houston, London, Manchester, and Barcelona. Some of those, like the scintillating Field Day album, eventually made it to the online store; others remain vinyl- or cassette-only, and rare as hen’s teeth. Through it all, he’s kept up an irregular stream of SoundCloud releases from his bottomless vaults. Three more tracks went up just last week, right around the release of the new Blackbox Life Recorder 21f / in a room7 F760 EP. (This ridiculously meticulous chart on Reddit details James’ gray-market output since Collapse: 37 new or remastered tracks, plus anywhere between 14 and 41 live debuts. That’s pretty prolific for someone who gives the impression of lying low.)
How does James decide when a given set of tracks will receive a wide release? For his first major output in half a decade, Blackbox Life Recorder appears a little thin at just four tracks long, especially since one of those, “Blackbox Life Recorder 22 [Parallax Mix],” is an alternate take. It’s more than just a question of quantity. There was a clear sense of purpose to other recent EPs of new material: Cheetah was an egghead’s love letter to a notoriously arcane synthesizer, Collapse a tour de force of drum programming. But it’s hard to find a comparable organizing principle for this one.
In general, these tracks are big, bruising, and percussion-forward. Whatever gear he’s used this time—internet sleuths have noted that the sleeve of the new EP features graphics from the Sequentix Cirklon, a hardware sequencer that he cited in two Cheetah titles and a previous interview—the drums have unusual oomph. He leans heavily on vintage-sounding drum machines: dampened snares, scratchy hi-hats, flammy toms, a rimshot worthy of Prince. His programming is as knotty as ever, but it’s the treatment of his drums that stands out. On “zin2 test5” and “in a room7 F760,” the hits are dry and unvarnished, as though recorded in a studio lined with blankets. “Blackbox Life Recorder 21f” is more complex: Some beats are muffled, others trail off into shimmery reverb tails. One kit simultaneously seems to occupy two very different positions in space, to subtly dizzying effect.
What the tracks share, mainly, is a certain inscrutable mood. The synths are woozy and watery, soaked in rapid-fire vibrato and prodded by occasional tritones. “Blackbox Life Recorder 21f” boasts a lovely melody that wends its way through the background, a beguiling ghost in glowing robes. In “zin2 test5,” softly sighing chords temper the surly bassline and nervous drum fills. And “in a room7 F760” starts with the kind of melancholy chiming synth lead that James canonized with Selected Ambient Works 85-92, then blows everything wide open: weird stereo panning, flayed hi-hats, “I need more cowbell” levels of cowbell. No matter how hectic the going gets, he suffuses it in miasmatic synths that sound like a much sadder version of New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies. If that weren’t affecting enough, “Blackbox Life Recorder 22 [Parallax Mix]” swaps out beefier drum sounds for hissing, rollicking cymbals in a classic “Xtal”/“Pulsewidth” vein, playing up the song’s spooky, phantasmal properties.
This being Aphex Twin circa 2023, the story doesn’t quite end there. On his web shop, the digital release of Blackbox Life Recorder contains four extra tracks. The bonus material turns out to be the same four tracks, just mastered differently by James himself “with specialist analog” hardware. (“Neither is better,” James explained, not entirely helpfully, in a comment on SoundCloud: “The louder ones are fuller, bigger but the quiet ones are way more punchy and cleaner if you turn the volume knob up high.”) Only very keen ears may be able to tell the difference, but “blackbox life recorder 20 ambient 760” is another matter entirely: That’s a mostly beatless version of the song that intrepid Redditors armed with Aphex Twin’s augmented-reality app YXBoZXh0d2lu and a facility for Python code located lurking on a Google Drive alongside a selection of promotional material. (Given that the enclosing folder is titled “WHILE STOCKS LAST,” it was presumably meant to be found.) It’s tempting to speculate that there are more versions like that out there, just waiting to be discovered. Blackbox Life Recorder, the EP, might seem relatively modest, but the black box that is Aphex Twin’s extended universe remains delightfully unfathomable.
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