Album Review: Aphex Twin – Blackbox Life Recorder 21f in a room7 F760

[Warp; 2023]

It’s funny to look back about twenty years and read the past takes on Aphex Twin. A vast number of Gen-X writers would talk about Richard D. James’ sprawling electronic output as if it was some sort of aural necromancy, obscure satanic spells that would damage the soul. Sure, the visual side to Aphex Twin has always been fairly grotesque and played with the discomfort of spectators, but these elements have always been part of a conscious charade that toyed with satirical elements.

More than anything, James’ output functioned as parody of contemporary obsessions merged with a showcase for his vast compositional talents – in other words, he took the piss, but loved music enough to give a damn that his work wouldn’t degrade to the flat surface of a raunchy joke. In short, Gen-X critics don’t have a sense of humor – at least not often. And when they do it’s usually derived from their own displaced sense of post-ironic nostalgia (something James always avoided). That’s probably why his music still sounds fresh, even when so much that built the basis for his textural observations has long gone out of fashion.

Speaking of fashion, the last time Aphex released a full length ‘work’ was nine years ago. The glitchy Syro embraced modern dancefloor aesthetics of its time more than any of his previous works, playing with updated variants of techno and house as much as with the burgeoning hyperpop palette and popular retro synthesizers. Many didn’t get the joke – Syro still exists in a bit of a vacuum when James’ catalogue is discussed, likely because it is a little subtler in how it undermines dance music. 2018’s Collapse EP, meanwhile, went for the jugular, reworking beats and samples into clear post-techno narratives, all detached limbs and nervous spasms. Body music as body horror – also a form of critique.

Since then, rooms have become a bit more spacious, with an entire era of collective agoraphobia dictating our movements beyond hedonist urges. It’s kind of weird that James hasn’t released his ‘corona album, seeing how he’s always been so observant of the movements within genres and the bodies that adapt to them. Nonetheless, Blackbox Life Recorder 21f/in a room f7 F760 can be read as an exhalation, a break from conscious awareness.

Whether the four tracks here are an actual EP, or a double A-side with two bonus tracks doesn’t really matter. They do feel like a postcard, a gentle reminder of comfort in how effortlessly they merge ambient synth swathes with the type of bubbly alternating beats that are familiar from late 90s video games. “zin2 test5” is the cleanest track in this regard, positioning itself orderly in the context of Y2k vibes. The titular opening track is a little more subdued, grooving effortlessly with sampled voices, before a pleasant breakbeat drops in and speeds things up. There’s moments where the track feels like a eulogy to the aggression of The Prodigy’s “Firestarter”, as if it bemoans the loss of a tribal violence that’s always been a part in dance – but it’s never dark or obfuscating.

With “in a room7 F760”, things become a little more sinister, with the key melody dropping into dystopian cyberpunk house that slowly extends itself with the help of a fake choir and what sounds like a distorted dog-bark (I’m likely wrong on this, but who knows). As before, the subtle sense of critique or satire within the structure seems wholly absent, and very much intentional. After all, a black box is meant to contain the last moments before a disaster that claims the lives of all witnesses – a last attempt of reconstructive forensics.

Is there code on this release? Probably. There might be a very subtle link between the two bookends, with the closer claiming to be a “mix” of the opener (a loose one at best), indulging in more shadowy tones and stepping away from the groove that marked the title track. But all in all, these four songs provide a familiar glow and welcoming tone that has been absent from the more recent works that James released. These songs aren’t so much about the experience of movement as they are observing the dynamics within their ebb and flow, changing beats on a whim and pondering over the digital preservation of modulated voices. They’re ghostly, but not in the ominous sense of a horror film. Yet there is still that slightly foreboding energy that accompanies them. And it’s possible this is where James found his emotional connection with these pieces. Or, also likely, I could just be full of shit and fall for four elegantly tailored sonic suites that play with my associations to cowbells and dark ambient melodies. Either way: this is very, very good – better than the rest. Analysis seems to make no sense when the art is so enormously enjoyable.