by Robert Kerstens
Since the early 90’s, Richard D James’ output under the Aphex Twin label has been a pioneering force in IDM (Intelligent Dance Music), a genre with a name so pretentious it makes me want a lobotomy every time I read it. That said, the Aphex Twin discography includes some of the most celebrated and innovative albums in electronic music history, and it’s hard to judge new music from Aphex Twin without comparing it to his past. Of all his albums, the Collapse EP most closely fits the mold of Syro, the album that marked the end to Aphex Twin’s 13-year slumber in 2014. Not only does it borrow synth and drum textures, it cranks up Syro’s fractalized complexity to the infinitesimal extreme. At first listen it might sound, at best, like the chaotic output of a machine learning algorithm trained on previous Aphex Twin music, and at worst, like a fax machine having a stroke. But with repeat listens, the meticulous programming becomes clear, and the EP becomes one of the most giddy pleasures of James’ career.
The sounds and ideas on Collapse’s five songs are denser than a black hole. While the impossible level of detail is impressive on its own, what’s more impressive is the laser-focused precision that prevents it from sounding muddled. The audio effects are just as deliberate, with pans that will leave your head spinning as sounds oscillate between the ears at dizzying speeds. Tempos stretch and snap like rubber bands as splintered drums ricochet at terminal velocity. It’s not quite drum and bass, but still has enough coked-out jitteriness to trigger an aneurysm.
The music here is restless, shapeshifting and full of surprises, as if violently allergic to repetition. Melodies shift suddenly but subtly; there is not a jarring transition on here. Take the lead single ‘T69 collapse,’ a spasmodic track with an equally twitchy music video that got banned from live TV for failing the epilepsy test. Despite the sputtering, scatter-shot drum patterns (if they can be called patterns), the first part has a relatively serene backdrop of distant twinkling synth melodies. It takes a dark turn halfway through, the synths filling with anxious dread and the drums pounding like your heart after a cup of coffee too many. Then out of nowhere the original theme returns, like a wide open view at the end of a long tunnel.
‘1st 44’ is an incredibly bouncy track, with hyperkinetic drums and rubbery bass dribbling like pinballs in a machine made entirely of bumpers. Foggy synths in the background create the illusion of a vast space beyond the frantic convulsions of rhythm in front of you. Some of the drum textures here sound similar to those used in Jlin’s recent work, industrial yet vaguely organic. The breakneck momentum of the EP continues through ‘MT1 t29r2’ and ‘abundance10edit[2 R8’s, FZ20m, & a 909]’ (an annoying name to type and a detailed description of how the song was made), each song a disorienting rhythmic vortex in its own right. But the rollercoaster ride of an EP slows down as it gets to ‘pthex,’ the one track where James doesn’t seem to have anything new to say and the chaos fails to materialize into anything memorable.
The Collapse EP is without question a thrilling work of IDM (kill me), but how does it stack up against the giants in Aphex Twin’s discography? It handily beats Cheetah, the last EP he dropped. But while the programming is undeniably impressive, it fails to achieve the emotional potency that makes Aphex Twin’s best work stand out. The best Aphex Twin tracks feel like an alien probe into your amygdala, triggering amorphous and slightly unsettling feelings that elude easy definition. Collapse is still a great EP and a dazzling technical spectacle, but nothing on it will haunt you like ‘Avril 14th’ or the Selected Ambient Works albums.