Few artists exist in a cloak of enigma like Richard D. James. He hides behind aliases. He often eschews traditional song titles in favor of numeric codes. His music, meanwhile, crisscrosses the electronic music gamut so gamely that calling his music “electronic” almost feels like a reductive slight. No one has opened up or defined the parameters of electronic music the way James has with Aphex Twin, and yet there’s a perpetual sense of mystery. Decades into his groundbreaking career, James is still a riddle that fans and critics have yet to completely solve.
And that’s all to his benefit. James’ insistence on keeping listeners on their toes has helped make him the legend that’s he’s become in the eyes of many. It also creates an increasingly high standard for each of his subsequent records. With every record, he continues to get just a little bit better, just a hair more vexing and mercurial, and yet his missteps have been few and far between. Syro, his Grammy-winning 2014 full-length, is proof positive that James cannot and should not be underestimated. Arriving some 13 years after his last proper studio effort as Aphex Twin, Drukqs, James waved off the extended hiatus and landed one of the most minimal but intricate records of his career under the Aphex Twin banner. In early 2015, he dished out Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Part 2, an avant exploration of the space between samplers and live percussion and piano.
This is all to say that James is still in fine fighting shape, which once again lords high expectations over Aphex Twin’s next project, the Cheetah EP. At seven songs, it’s slim by the standards of an Aphex Twin project, and even thinner when you consider two tracks (“CHEETA1b ms800” and “CHEETA2 ms800”) are sub-minute musical interludes. But while it’s a lighter course for fans to chew on, it’s still a satisfying one. Cheetah is a kindred spirit to Syro’s glitchy ambiance, with James once again laying his hypnotic, synth-driven samples on thick. Composed using digital wave sequencing technology, it’s mood music that insists on hanging back in the shadows.
Lead track “CHEETAHT2 (Ld Spectrum)” starts out innocently enough with a steady hand, its pulsing, metronomic beat laying the song’s foundation. But it eventually clouds itself with dystopic unease. But that doesn’t mean that James can’t have fun in the dark. “CHEETAHT27b” is decidedly funkier, even if its sleepy ambiance continues down a subdued path. If the opening tracks could best be described as James’ bleak answer to chillwave, the EP ramps up the energy elsewhere. After a short interlude, “CIRKLON3” (accompanied by Aphex Twin’s first video in almost two decades) opens with a skittering, 8-bit-esque shit-fit. The song, along with its corresponding “CIRKLON 1”, throws it back to electronica both distant (Kraftwerk) and not-so-distant (think of the sounds Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood wee trying to unlock Kid A and Amnesiac). That said, they still sound like a product of today’s hyper-stimulated technological age. A digital bonus track, “2X202-ST5”, closes things out with the most outright dance-friendly track of the bunch.
The press release accompanying Cheetah EP instructs listeners to “please be sure to read the owners manual carefully before attempting to operate” the new record. James might be having a little bit of fun with us for the sake of ramping up the mystery behind his new project, but not totally. The producer once again succeeds with delivering music that’s intricate and forward-thinking while still landing within listeners’ grasp. In true Aphex Twin style, the EP reaches for and finds higher ground on the electronic music plain. We probably should have expected as much.
Essential Tracks: “CHEETAHT2 (Ld Spectrum)”, “CIRKLON3”