AFX Chosen Lords

[Rephlex; 2006]

Styles: techno, ambient electronica
Others: Aphex Twin, Autechre, Brian Eno, Venetian Snares

Last year was a frustrating one for me as an Aphex Twin fan. Each month I read reviews of his ongoing Analord series, a set of 11 singles released only on vinyl. Hungry as I was to hear new stuff from Mr. James, my wallet could not support the weighty demands of the Analord deluge. Thankfully, James has realized that both he and his fans could profit from a release of some of the new material in a more economical format. Thus, we have Chosen Lords, a 10-track CD culled from the 41 cuts that comprise the Analord vinyls.

The disc seems to be an exploration of James' own personae, dating back to his ambient work of the '80s. With a fistful of monikers and nearly two decades of top-flight productivity, Aphex's own backstory provides plenty of source material for new songs (viz. the work of the myriad artists he has influenced). Chosen Lords strides at a bratty midtempo clip, seasoning the crystalline beauty of Ambient Works 85-92 with liberal dashes of The Richard D. James Album's spastic genius. It's a self-reflective project with songs that tunnel into themselves, cycling through the various formulas that Aphex has deployed with such success over the years. Here James rearranges his signature components -- tight, frenetic drumming; transmogrified vocals; acid-bathed synths -- in an aural three-card monte: constant movement belies an underlying sameness from track to track.

The retrospective feel of the record comes in part from the age of the analogue equipment. The vintage gear and homemade machines create both elysian backgrounds and clenched arpeggios that bind each other in barbed-wire knots. Voices and melodies sound squelched and scorched; they vibrate with crackling anxiety as they invade each other's space. The drums are speedy and acrobatic but never sprint fast enough to create his trademark breakcore buzz -- the vintage hiss of the hi-hat and snare remain audible throughout.

Although each track reflects James' sinister élan, the record's ending impresses much more than its beginning. The last three tracks bear the mark of attempts at originality and freshness, while the others seem more like reconfigurations of past ideas. "Cilonen" lets a stocky bassline dominate, while ascendant synths exhale and scattered errata zip in and out of the slits between. "PWSteal.Ldpinch.D" is a direct nod to house with a steady bass and hi-hat motoring beneath an antiseptic melody that's dull one second and blinding the next, like brushed stainless steel. The last track is the best thanks to James' canny juxtaposition of non-electronic instruments and the omnipresent synths. The song opens with what could be church bells (Chosen Lords), but its sonorous chimes morph pianoid and give way to the surprising entry of shakers and serrated synths which lend a malignant air far removed from the emotional stability of the record's first half. The contrasts here are the key: the shaker sounds so present against that synth -- dark and imaginary as phosphenes. The first nine cuts attest to AFX's mastery of The Techno Song; by contrast, "XMD5A" inclines toward electronic composition in its spacious seven-and-a-half minutes.

In sum, I'm quite happy to have this record, although I know it is far from the most inventive of James' career. Rather than slashing and burning through new territory, Chosen Lords merits attention as a charismatic history chronicling the evolution of James' musical identities. For me, one CD of such material is just right; it's an affordable reminder of the singular talent that drew me to Aphex Twin in the first place.

1. Fenix Funk5
2. Reunion 2
3. Pitcard
4. Crying in Your Face
5. Klopjob
6. Boxing Day
7. Batine Acid
8. Cilonen
9. PWSteal.Ldpinch.D
10. XMD5A