Featured Artists: Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Jon Hopkins, DJ Shadow
Genres: IDM, Electronica, Drum and Bass, Nu Jazz
1) We Disappear, Jon Hopkins
Beginning with an audio sample of Hopkins unlocking the doors to his London recording studio, this first track appropriately sets the mood for what we are about to hear. The thumping drum beat which makes up the backbone of the song seems to have been constructed from re-arranged parts of the audio sample that was previously mentioned. It is a scratchy, glitch beat that must have came from an assortment of percussion instruments, rather than a standard drum kit. We then hear the droning looms of dark, mysterious chords interrupted by sporadic beeps. The synthesizer sounds like a heavily distorted moan that compliments the bass line. My favourite element of the song is the increasing orchestration, and how it relentlessly builds. I recommend listening to this song using stereo headphones, or with an omni-directional speaker system in order to hear the production on this track. Sounds drift back and forth between ears; Jon Hopkins does a magnificent job utilizing space to enhance the listening experience.
2) Papat, Aphex Twin
From the recent grammy award winning album Syro by underground electronic music icon Aphex Twin, Papat features bouncy synths, a driving rhythm, wobbly bass lines, and an overall feeling of playfulness. Despite the harsh analog sound that comes from the unique production style Aphex Twin specializes in, the track does not feel cumbersome to listen to. Since the track is so intricately detailed and layered, over multiple playthroughs the genius behind the music slowly reveals itself. If you’ve never heard intelligent dance music before, Papat’s energy and uniquely synthesized instrumentation is a perfect introduction to the genre that will surely have you ready for dance floor.
3) Building Steam With a Grain of Salt, DJ Shadow
Since this entire record was made using re-arranged samples from old/forgotten vinyl records that DJ Shadow has accumulated over the years, the diversity of sounds he is drawing from is incredible. Sampling the iconic, decade defining sounds of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s, DJ Shadow is able to masterfully permutate the music we already love into entirely something new. “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” is built around a looped piano melody, with various other musical elements entering throughout the song’s duration: interview samples, a women’s choir, bass fills, electronically altered drum kicks, and a funk guitar. Through the sampled dialogue he is able to tell a story about himself through the voices of others, and to create music that is truly uncategorizable. I guarantee you haven’t heard anything like it before.
4) Iambic 9 Poetry, Squarepusher
A relaxed, light high-hatted rhythm, a soothing bass, stuttering drum fills, and a strung-out keyboard make up Squarepusher’s laid back take on Intelligent Dance Music. On this track Squarepusher’s influence comes from a jazz background, rather than the hard hitting break-beat rhythms more commonly found in IDM music. Rather than using a drum machine, the drums were recorded live in studio, which adds clarity and a natural element to the percussion. The layered, modulated, filtered bass guitar blends with the rest of the sounds, offering a pulsating bass-line that helps time keep while the drums descend into organized chaos. When the song counts in for a second time the rhythm re-organizing itself, and slowly crescendos. Closing with symbols, the melody fades until the end of the track.
5) Circlont-A, Aphex Twin
“Circlont-A” is one of the most striking instances of IDM. It begins with the instrument lineup of a brittle acid track save live-sounding drums, which vamp like they’ve been plucked from a sold-out Wembley Stadium gig. As quickly as it builds, it stumbles—the squelching bass folds in on itself, and the drums trade the gallup for an awkward but perfectly timed skip. James strips back the arrangement to a thin pad playing a nervous cluster of notes, then blasts it off with a synthy squeal. Despite the rising lead, the track’s melodic undercurrent mournfully moves down the scale. As the two lines merge the progression falls apart in a series of tumbles that impart exhilaration and twinges of sadness in equal measure. I’ve listened to the cut dozens of times, and there are still sections that surprise me. In terms of impressive twists and turns, they’re myriad. This track morphs, pressurizes and reorganizes—but never breaks down.
6) Tundra, Squarepusher
This dark, ethereal epic which clocks in at just under 8 minutes in length is well strung out. The through composed nature of the tune allows it to develop from beginning to end, never repeating itself. Echoing synthesizers, a rumbling bass, and hectic drumming compliment each other well. A catchy chord progression transitions into a weirdly off-putting one accompanied by a busy drum pattern. “Tundra” has the ability to instil calm over panic, its mood entirely dependent on what the listener chooses to isolate. Listening to the drums can be an exhilarating experience, but the synthesizers are predictable, helping to provide the needed relief through melodic certainty over a morphing drum pattern. My favourite part of the song is the sustained climax. Squarepusher undoubtedly squeezes every ounce of enjoyment out of it. I wouldn’t recommend repeated listening, it is one of those tracks where you need to get up to grab a glass of water while you think about what you just heard.
7) Flim, Aphex Twin
Absolutely beautiful. Remove the drums and you’ll still end up with a tear-jerking, ambient masterpiece. One of the first moments where Aphex Twin gets his Janus faces (Richard the heartbreaker, and Richard the noisemaker) talking to one another. The songs is made up of two simple instrumental components, the drums and the keyboard. At its essence, “Flim” is nothing more than a complex rhythm over a simple melody, but it instils more emotion through its minimalistic approach than one could possibly imagine.
Check out this live version. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JaYx_spDrA
8) The Swifty, Squarepusher
The raw industrial beginning of “The Swifty” is difficult to swallow. Sporadic drum machine seizures, and keyboard blips (that sound an awful lot like error messages) create something that sounds more of orchestrated noise rather than music. It isn’t until the blissful resolution of this noise that the song truly feels satisfying. The keyboard, and hypnotic jazz guitar riffs relieve the pressure created by the industrial sound. Suddenly all that chaos becomes part of an order that is creatively playful, easy-going and lighthearted. What a surprise.
9) Stem/Long Stem
Another song from DJ Shadow’s album entitled “Endtroducing”, is featured here. Immediately the song seems familiar, although the song shares no common elements with “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt”. DJ Shadow’s heavy double kick drum is juxtaposed with several other diversely sampled parts, including: string movements, comedy routines, film soundtracks, and blues music. The thrash metal drum solo is such a beautifully orchestrated part of the track, that the strangeness quickly dissipates as you’re taken in by the music. Sounds that would never harmonize with one another find a rare musical niche in DJ Shadow’s composition. He reminds you that no matter the personality, the message, the packaging the music comes with, in the end it is ultimately about the sound. The track is divided into two parts, marked by a climatic string voicing which introduces a whole new palate of instrumentation. The track ends by fading out to static, reminding us that this was made with nothing but a turntable, and by the creative genius of a mad scientist who doesn’t leave his lab too often.
10) Xtal, Aphex Twin
The final installment on this playlist happens to be the opening track on the well renowned, ground-breaking ambient techno LP “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” which has been credited to be the benchmark of modern day electronic music. Numerous sources have also praised “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” to be the best album of the 90’s. Interestingly enough, the track’s name is a reference to the analog production. In electronics, Xtal is an abbreviation for crystal, and refers to a piezoelectric crystal oscillator (a device containing quartz crystal which, if stimulated, will oscillate at a precise frequency and can be used to generate voltage sine waves). Fancy stuff.
Xtal begins with fuzzy high hat over a cascading synth melody. A looming bass drum, and sampled female vocals add intricacy to the song, taking a new shape as the drum pattern changes into a kit based groove. The intoxicating repetitiveness makes this ambient lullaby stand out among Aphex Twin’s other works. In my opinion the song is a tad short; I would have enjoyed an extended cut in order to make Xtal suitable to be more of a stand-alone track. Out of context this song does not offer as much as listening to the entirety of “Selected Ambient Works 85-92”. If you are interested in what you have heard so far, I highly recommend listening to “Selected Ambient Works 85-92”. I was temped to add “Tha”, the second track on the album which immediately follows Xtal, as an eleventh track to the playlist. However, this song will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression and is a perfect way to conclude our listening experience.
By: Lucas Phillip