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Review: Aphex Twin Takes Us to His Toy Factory on ‘Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt2′ EP

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 2, 2015
Label: Warp

Richard David James really has no business being considered a perfectionist, nor should anyone who releases doodles on EPs under a pen name, $562-list box sets, and most recently, self-leaked archives under various pseudo-Soundcloud accounts. Nor is he repeating himself; even an untrained ear can tell that those Analord tunes are heavy on farting acid synths, and that the new Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt2 EP more or less sounds like what its title promises. Last year’s SYRO was very good; it was also a marketing coup. He slowed to a crawl but never quite stopped making music. What he did do was stop paying directors like Chris Cunningham to keep his twisted grin in the public eye while contemporaries like Moby and Daft Punk became the faces of electronic music history in motion. SYRO wasn’t a return to form, it was a return to brand. And the album format.

Depending on whether or not you consider 2001’s Drukqs to be a real album or (allegedly) another exhumed hard drive, the last proper Aphex Twin album with a beginning, middle and end was 1996’s Richard D. James Album, his most playful up to that point because he claimed it was about childhood. With its inlay of a headstone engraved “Richard James,” it actually goes deeper than that, because it’s allegedly a tribute to his older twin (get it) brother who died at birth, presumably also named Richard because his parents were forewarned. Because James is famously private, we’ll never know if this tale is any truer than his occupation of a bank or possession of a tank.

All we do know is that the 43-year-old has two sons of his own now, and while they were digitized and stirred into the mix on the forbiddingly funky SYRO, it’s Acoustic Instruments Pt2 that really sounds like a record by an artist father, picking up toys defeatedly until he realizes some of them are his own. On SYRO, James’ wife was referenced on “aisatsana [102],” spelled backwards because she’s Russian and “it always sounds backwards when they talk,” he told Pitchfork’s Philip Sherburne. Having paid tribute to his spouse, he also added a desire to involve his children more in his record-making, “because the way I do stuff is so anti-kid, it’s really boring.”

Which brings us to the messy room that comes to life for 13 tracks in 28 minutes on Acoustic Instruments Pt2, which has precedents in Sonic Youth’s prepared-piano-laden avant tribute Goodbye 20th Century and Squarepusher’s played-not-programmed bitches brew Music Is Rotted One Note. Like Richard D. James Album, the idea is to clone real weighted objects and the organic echoes of a walled room. Instead of music boxes and crib toys, we get James’ first-ever drumroll that actually sounds played by hand on “snar2.” This leads into a six-year-old’s idea of a gamelan orchestra on “diskhat1,” which gets funky itself rather fast, utilizing crashing piles of tin that sound halfway between a saloon’s player piano and a cimbalom from a Balkan orkestar. The marching plinks of “DISKPREPT4″ are miked so the spotlight is on the percussion of the piano keys being pressed, the ivory itself rather than the notes being “played.” Though the scales being zoomed through are rather virtuosic indeed, this is the central conceit of Acoustic Instruments Pt2 – and also the rub.

James’ playroom is way, way better than yours or mine: duh. But he’s also a songwriter: “4,” “Windowlicker,” and “Avril 14th,” to choose a sampling from three different periods, all grounded their mechanical pyrotechnics in stated melodies and themes. SYRO’s prerogative was to bring his audience into his adult phase of Princely jazz fusion and harmolodic Ornette squirts. But this EP is spacious above the obvious clutter, and its grooves more resemble that of a funk garage band, thus there’s more to be filled in. The cacaphony of those detuned, clanging metallophones is a compelling listen or three, multiplied because it’s over before your ear can grasp all the tangible treasures jingling by. By constructing accidents that are just as vulnerable to getting knocked down in seconds, this dad has finally pinpointed the sound of what it’s like to build something with a kid in real time.