Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92
Feb 22, 2021
Trying to pin down specific time points in which the musical landscape took a dramatic turn can be nearly impossible in some cases. Musical history is constantly built on the shoulders of the giants that came before, whether that be in guitar tone, experimental synths, the usage of samples, record scratches, or anything in between that would then be replicated in new and diverse ways for decades to come. Aphex Twin's debut studio album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, is no exception to this rule. Without the already existent world of dance clubs or the ambient stylings of Brian Eno there would be no Aphex Twin, to be certain, but without Aphex Twin you likely would never be sitting at home listening to electronic music at all unless someone else had come around to shift the narrative. Even then, it's unlikely they would have accomplished what Richard D. James did in the years of creation it took to reach this debut, and perhaps the entire movement would have collapsed entirely.

Luckily, that isn't where we find ourselves thanks to Aphex Twin. SAW 85-92 spans across James' early life even before DJing for clubs or his house music EPs, two vastly different realms than the experimentation James approached on his debut. The major difference, and the reason that Aphex Twin became the poster boy for the evolution of electronic music, is the incorporation of those more ambient textures throughout the record that gave the club beats both room to breathe as well as adapt. There are certainly elements of many tracks that could easily have transferred to the clubs in the early 90's; the drum machine patterns on Xtal, the synth loops on Pulsewidth, or the infectious bounce that comes in Ptolemy all come to mind. However, for every electronic standard there is another that completely flips those expectations for something entirely different in the house music scene. Take Tha, which likely wouldn't pull a soul onto the dance floor at any point in its 9-minute run time given its hushed tones and gentle drum hits, that might not have had a home outside of the club scene. Schottkey 7th Path has the same effect, having a constantly repeated tone that certainly would be infectious enough to dance to had it not been paired with such dark and even lethargic sounding ambient tones.

Aphex Twin didn't stop at just the blending in of ambient music with electronica, but also went for more unique and experimental approaches that likely wouldn't have landed elsewhere effectively. Green Calx may be the most evident offender of such invention, moving from odd industrial tones to laser-like synths and sounds that I can only describe as goopy. We Are The Music Makers isn't far off, taking the build up of a club banger and letting it play out for nearly eight minutes while sampling a vocal snippet from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Such odd choices weren't commonplace in any genre at the time, but they certainly don't feel like something that was happening daily in the electronic scene.

It really shouldn't be thought of as hyperbolic to stress the importance of SAW 85-92, perhaps not because Aphex Twin reinvented the wheel but instead made it function smoother and popularized its usage. Someone like Eno is still certainly respected in musical corners of the world, but his name likely wouldn't have ever been brought up in the electronic dance music conversation in the 90's without an album like this. Ditto for dance music generally, a genre that was seen as mindless noise until pioneers like James led the charge of instrumentally based digital noise finding a safe space within our homes and not just while riding the high of drugs in a dimly lit club. The term IDM is certainly almost cliched thirty years later, but its application on SAW 85-92 is warranted beyond measure; without Aphex Twin it's hard to imagine dance music ever sounding so gracefully or intricate, and it certainly would have never evolved even further without the scaffolding to get it there.

Oh, and no, we won't be talking about any notable sampling here. Had anyone prominent in the music scene sampled a song, say, an Agiespolis, I'm sure their names wouldn't be worth noting in the conversation. Thank goodness no one did that.

Favorite track: Pulsewidth

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