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Aphex Twin’s Surprisingly Ambitious Collapse EP Proves He’s as Restless As Ever

For a musician who is rightfully pegged as an innovator, Aphex Twin has cultivated a fairly consistent signature sound. Melodies shine with the whimsy and terror of childhood; drum hits bounce, accelerate, and disappear like skipped rocks. For the first two minutes, his new EP Collapse proceeds predictably along these lines. Then, true to its title, the music falls apart, revealing itself as something stranger and more interesting than the work of a master simply easing comfortably into his late period. Rhythms arrive out of order, harmonies grow sharp and unruly. In the potentially seizure-inducing music video for opening track “T69 Collapse,” an entire digital universe disappears into a clenched and puckered black hole. At first, it looks like the end of space and time as we know it. Then, it just kind of looks like the end of the human digestive tract.

Whatever guise he’s using at a given moment, Richard D. James delights in pushing limits: of tempo, complexity, good taste. The breakdown of “T69 Collapse” is an early indicator that he’s still at it, and not just because of the video’s giant cosmic butthole. Over and over across Collapse, James begins with familiar material, then takes that material on a journey to an unfamiliar place. What he finds there is often harsh even by his standards. But you wouldn’t call Collapse ugly, exactly, not when the sounds are so alive with the joy of curiosity and exploration. James may be abusing your eardrums—and his equipment—but you can imagine him doing it with that unmistakable Aphex Twin grin affixed to his face.

After emerging from quasi-retirement with the full-length opus Syro in 2014, James has so far released new work in a trickle of smaller collections that are rewarding but not always dazzling. Each EP focuses on a particular facet of his musical interests; even the best of them, the maniacally inventive Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2, was more like a detour than a proper follow-up. Collapse, however, comes close to matching the album’s encompassing ambition, albeit on a smaller scale. It is a more substantial work than its short format lets on, with five tracks that are all in the five-to-six minute range. Like Syro’s, they all mutate several times in that length, from friendly to malevolent, tightly wound to loose and overflowing. Aphex Twin has rarely ever repeated himself from one measure to the next. These new tracks function like fractal outgrowths of that restless micro-level tinkering, replicating each subtle melodic variation or skittering new drum fill as an overarching structural shift.

Collapse distinguishes itself from Syro by its willingness to follow those shifts to even more hazardous locales. “Pthex” features the kind of gloopy analog bassline that has enamored James since he was a teenager, bubbling through the seams of the beat. But after a period of relative normalcy, it begins to grow out of control, eating at the edges of the machinery until the rhythms stutter and break down. What began as a cubist rendition of an acid techno track now feels more like splattered abstract expressionism. None of Collapse’s derailments are permanent, and this one only lasts a few seconds before the music puts itself back on track. If the EP leaves you wanting anything, it’s more malfunction, more frenzy, more extended deviations from the Aphex Twin playbook.

Collapse’s most tantalizing offering is “1st 44,” a three-car pileup of snares and booming bass that initially bears some resemblance to the recent work of footwork experimentalist Jlin. James was an early advocate for the younger producer, whose overwhelmingly dense drum programming suggests a kind of logical endpoint for his obsessively detailed style. He has apparently fretted about looming too large as an influence over her work, but if anything, it sounds like the inspiration is now running the other way. The percussion-heavy palette of “1st 44” seems to give James a new angle on his own virtuosity, leading him to the most dizzying rhythms of his post-comeback career. But where else can he go from here?

Soon enough, “1st 44” does something unexpected, providing one possible answer: It slows down. Given time to absorb your focus, drum hits you’ve heard thousands of times before take on uncanny new shapes and textures. Individual sounds no longer exist to serve a larger system, but are objects unto themselves, floating like clouds across the aural field. James has composed plenty of ambient music before, but generally it’s been walled off from the rest of his catalog. The meditative clarity of “1st 44” lasts only a short while before it dissipates, but it briefly suggests an unlikely new frontier for Aphex Twin, in the spaces between the beats. There are untold worlds inside, if you can bring yourself to hear them.