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Aphex Twin: "Selected Ambient Works 85-92"

Covert art

Infected with the sound of its time

So you've heard a lot of good things about Aphex Twin, right? I have, too. And quite frankly, I was intimidated by all that high praise. Everyone kept rambling on about how intellectual and unusual and complex their music was and I thought to myself, "that sounds inaccessible, maybe I won't understand it". Those fears weren't completely unfounded, but when you take "Selected Ambient Works 85-92" and push play, you'll find it's easy to approach after all, at least for the first half of the album.

This album lies strongly in the musical direction of Boards of Canada with its love for analog oldskool synths that have a really "hand-made" texture to them. Then again, these tracks date back to 1985 so maybe it wasn't so much a style decision as it was, well, the only way to go. That aside, this album may induce a feeling of nostalgia for you, but for new school electronica audiences (that I inevitably belong to due to my age) it's going to be something new, something you've never quite heard before.

Arthur O'Shaughnessy's poem "We Are The Music Makers" is quite a manifesto for electronic musicians, as they are and have been pioneering in a new way of thinking that has changed western music tradition quite dramatically from O'Shaughnessy's days. The epic track by the same name on this album reflects that (and also quotes a couple of verses from the poem). This album gives you some idea of the revolution that was taking place in the 80s - a completely new kind of music was emerging. Listening to the album today, with its lush soundscapes and vibrant melodies, it's sure to spark interest in the history of electronic music in new listeners. Mixed in and around the analog melodies are quirky sound effects, noises and clicks - these tracks are what defined ambient as a genre right up to this day.

Now, after all this talk about history, you've learned very little of this album in particular. I guess some banter about history is obligatory when you review music that was created more than 10 years ago. Even though groundbreaking in its time, the essential question is, can you enjoy this music today? Can you buy this album not because it's part of every music enthusiast's all-round education, but rather because it's unique, captivating and a good listen still today? The answer, in my view, is two-fold.

You will hear TR-808 all over this album. That's a fact, and some people will undoubtedly find that just a little off-putting (while others will find it quite heartwarming). You will hear some things that were avantgarde in their time but sound relatively unimpressive today. But at the same time, there are tracks here that have easily endured the weight of the years that have stacked upon them, like the serene "Xtal". You'll hear a few interesting beats and basslines, but most importantly, you'll hear melodies that you've never heard before. At its very best this album gives you warm, green moments.

Yet when all is said and done, I'm giving this record one and a half stars. Because even though there is musical innovation and warmth to be found on this album, it's buried inside the distinct sound of oldskool analog percussion, and it's not easy to penetrate that layer unless you're into that kind of thing. Personally, there are a few tracks here that do nothing at all to me, and a few that impress, but none that inspire awe or send chills down my spine. I guess my problem with music like early Kraftwerk and this album is that while they have some amazing moments and melodies, they're hopelessly infected with the the timbres of the TR-808. When you first listen to this album, you'll go half way through it without noticing anything. But towards the end, and on the second listen, you'll realize just how very monotonic those timbres are. Whether that is charming or just dull is a matter of personal preference.



  1. Xtal [Sample]
  2. Tha
  3. Pulsewidth
  4. Ageispolis
  5. i
  6. Green Calx
  7. Heliosphan
  8. We Are The Music Makers
  9. Schottkey 7th Path
  10. Ptolemy [Sample]
  11. Hedphelym
  12. Delphium
  13. Actium
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R&S Records 1992

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Review by Saboteur

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