Author Archives: David James

First Thoughts on Aphex Twin’s Syro

On Wednesday, September 17, 2014 at some point after 7pm, Aphex Twin‘s first album in 13 years leaked. Syro is playing right now, and I have a grin as big as the one below.

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Just as I start typing well past the halfway point of this album, a sudden dynamic bloom splits CIRCLONT14 wide open. Wordless female vocals seem to come from below and around me, before erupting a cyberpunk break straight from future-Detroit. This is one of many moments so far to truly surprise me and dilate my eyes, and it’s the biggest so far.

Somehow time seems to be stretching forever. The songs appear to go beyond their track lengths. This is a wildly unnatural sensation. Fun times usually pass in a flash. I’m definitely having fun.

A boogie funk line just hijacked the proceedings. I’m now unable to think of what came before. Wait, no. Let’s jump back to the beginning.

It begins with minipops 67. We know how grand this is, how warm and sensuous it is, referencing the first Aphex Twin album and his boldest pop moment at once. Next..

Now I’m hearing a synth ghost chorus, high speed jazzy drum programming, and what can only be described at this moment as an equatorial oscillation. Maybe that should be a question? It sounds like nonsense. I’m not going for anything profound right now. This isn’t going to end that thoughtfully. I just wanted to lay my excitement down in words, as it happens. Gonzo style. Of course, I’m safe, alone, and in my apartment, but all the same: this is me experiencing an album I never knew I wanted so badly for so many years.

As the final track, aisatsana (Anastasia in reverse, incidentally) winds down in Gymnopédie-like ecstacy, I’m reminded of nothing so gentle and haunting as Virginia Astley’s 1983 song A Summer Long Since Passed. I’d rather not spoil anything, so just listen to this song if you want a metaphorical preview of Syro’s ending.

I feel like maybe the title is appropriate, somehow.


I’m starting it over. Track two now, and I’m realizing how tactile this thing feels. I may get the cybernetic dream sequence feeling from Selected Ambient Works 85-92, but it’s far more alive. I can’t wait for the the arrival of my 3LP next Monday.

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The leak is out there. I won’t share links because anyone interested enough can find them. Besides: buy this. Buy it now. I did before hearing even the first single, and now I’m cemented in my belief that it was a Good Choice. If you’re a fan of the man at all, this is a sure shot. Check the Warp page for links to purchase.

Aphex Twin – minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]

Aphex Twin is dropping a new album for only the second time since I became a fan, and the first time I have been aware, this month. Since the neon blimp soared over London I’ve been excited beyond words. The build-up to this album has seen a newly unearthed side project from two decades ago, art stunts on two continents, and a series of listening parties set to occur in the next week. We should have expected it at this point, but this week birthed surprise as we finally got a taste of things to come. Richard D. James has truly delivered.

This feels like a Windowlicker sibling raised in the nocturnal, neon soaked grid of Selected Ambient Works 85-92. Familiar touchstones abound: skittering percussion moving like a current over melodic bedrock, dynamic shifts birth crystalline synth tones, and a sort of broken cyberpunk tone colors the whole thing. Over halfway though, warped vocals enter unannounced, striking in their warm candor. The most unexpected aspect of minipops 67 might very well be how welcoming and open it is. This is Aphex Twin as pop auteur, working in an understated, head nodding aesthetic that he’s rarely approached.

FINAL MASTER SYRO DIGIPAK.indd

The reaction I’ve seen around the world has ranged from exultant worship to cries of heresy – which is par for the course, as far as I’m concerned. This track sneaks up on me, sinking its knives before I even realize 5 minutes have passed, before I hit “replay” again. For an artist known for bold moves (the entirety of Drukqs, his confrontational, arresting videos), perhaps an ambient pop song was the boldest move of all. Is he setting us up for a full frontal assault when Syro drops later this month? Will the album pull this thread, becoming his most accessible release yet? In a few weeks we’ll know. I expect that we will see how far the internet can bend that day. It’s good to have Richard D. James back.

Buy Syro at Bleep, Amazon, iTunes, or wherever. This is the one indulgence I’ve allowed myself this fall: the 3LP set is destined for my home in a few weeks.

Shabazz Palaces – #CAKE

Shabazz Palaces‘ new album Lese Majesty has wormed its way to the very core of me. It’s glorious, it’s freewheeling psychedelia, it’s a complete deconstruction of hip-hop forms and one of the best albums this year. Since my purple “loser edition” showed up a couple weeks ago, I’ve played it more than any album in months; even more so on my headphones at work, through the Sub Pop stream and then Spotify, where it’s streaming for free in whole: Lese Majesty on Spotify.

If you haven’t jumped on this wavelength, please have some #CAKE.

The second single, #CAKE, is the centerpiece of the album’s even-more-warped second half. An electro-jungle hip-hop riot erupts before leaping through a perfectly incongruous female soul vocal, taking flight with vintage Kraftwerk synth lasers as the tune ratchets up toward an unforgettable chant ending. It’s the type of multifaceted, twisty song that made their debut, Black Up, an instant left-of-center masterpiece.

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This piece is really indicative of how Shabazz Palaces (duo of Tendai Maraire and Ishmael Butler) appear to hold no affiliation to any particular genre or sound. The middle vocal bridge slides into the beat-driven first half like a glacier, overtaking all momentum. As the tune gathers steam for its ending, the krautrock influence bursts through as the vocals craft a towering a list of places from Berlin to Neptune. It’s pointed, it’s weird, it’s confusing, and it’s fun as hell. A recent review of Lese Majesty mentioned that they’re not “the future of hiphop, but a step to the side” as if it was a bad thing. I couldn’t imagine a higher compliment for a duo wholly unconcerned with trends in this meme-driven music climate.

Also, I feel obligated to share this amazing photo of Butler. It’s one of my favorite artist images in years:

 

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[buy Lese Majesty on 2LP vinyl, CD, or digitally via Sub Pop right HERE or Amazon or whatever]

Oneohtrix Point Never + Philip K. Dick

Today I’m taking shelter in my apartment while a certain Christian music festival rears its ugly head across the street. Fanny-packed crowds flood the streets below while devotional rock blasts through the windows. I shut the shades and find my Rifts box set, selecting the third and possibly gentlest Oneohtrix Point Never album, Russian Mind. Once the turntable is spinning, I nudge the volume a few times until I hear nothing but the gorgeous introductory drone and feel myself wash away. I’m reading VALIS, the final work by science fiction visionary and personal favorite, Philip K. Dick. It’s dense, wild, bursting with ideas in every direction at once. It’s also painfully close to my inner workings at times – a strange proposition when the book is about insanity, living information, and puzzling out the coded machinations of the universe.

Hit play now, so you can follow along:

I slide back into the book I’ve nearly completed. The wandering cadence of this story feels like the most familiar dream. When a sudden gap allows the fist pumping dogma to pierce my room from outdoors, I jump to get side B rolling as quickly as possible. The title track begins, and my eyes fall on this passage:

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To my surprise I realized that I had stopped shaking.

It was as if I had been shaking all my life, from a chronic undercurrent of fear. Shaking, running, getting into trouble, losing the people I loved. Like a cartoon character instead of a person, I realized. A corny animation from the early Thirties. In back of all I had ever done the fear had forced me on. Now the fear had died, soothed away by the news I had heard. The news, I realized suddenly, that I had waited from the beginning to hear; created, in a sense, to be present when the news came, and for no other reason.

I could forget the dead girl. The universe itself, on its macro-cosmic level, could now cease to grieve. The wound had healed.
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Not many people know me that well, but those who do will know why this hits me so hard. Especially when paired with what I was hearing.

Coming in after a song called “Grief and Repetition,” Russian Mind works a swift attack. Rejecting the overlapping, clipped dull tones of its predecessor, the song bursts forth in a warm arpeggio, taking flight above grey clouds on a stormy day, pulling right on into space. It’s simple, direct, working on a primal level; there’s nothing subliminal about the way it sets progressive thought blooming. It is, in a sense, a kernel of understanding my love for sci-fi evoking synth music. I grew up when science fiction was, if not optimistic, always framed with boundless possibility. There was fear, but not of the unknown. The fear was about our past, our old, dumb ideas still haunting us. The unknown was the future, and whatever it held was not going to hold us back. This music opens a back door, plugging me into that childhood feeling of endless curiosity and hope for what was yet to come.

I feel confident hazarding a guess that Dan Lopatin (the artist’s real name; coincidentally the son of immigrants from the former Soviet Union) was raised on similar fiction with a similar affection for the galaxy of sounds made possible via synthesizer. The more I read on, while the album neared its conclusion, the more apparent it became to me: this notion that VALIS, and the philosophy of Philip K. Dick in general, might be the author’s ultimate work. Not only that, but it may be one of the few books I’ve read that stabs toward the fundamental abyss I find myself gawking at so often. Not only that, but, given the book’s themes and plot (I won’t spoil anything), Lopatin’s work likely acknowledges both Dick and this novel in particular.

I’ll end with this tidbit, gleaned from the Wikipedia article on the name of the final track on this album:

Immanence refers to philosophical and metaphysical theories of divine presence in which the divine is seen to be manifested in or encompassing the material world.

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Please, read some of Dick’s work. It’s worth all of our time.

Special thanks to my friend, collected unkept, for lending me VALIS.

Carl Craig – At Les

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here on Optimistic Underground, and as with every prior hiatus I now feel the need to hammer out some mea culpa before jumping into the music. Today I’m skipping that nonsense. Here’s one of the greatest pieces of electronic dance music I’ve ever heard, a landmark from almost two decades ago that I only discovered this year.

Since “better late than never” is mostly true, I’m sharing this new found treasure with everyone. This is god-tier techno, from a Detroit legend you’ve probably heard of. Carl Craig is considered one of the great masters of techno, for reasons that become obvious within minutes of getting familiar. His 1997 masterpiece solo album More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art was an instant all-time top 10 favorite the moment I heard it this past winter. The album peaks at the moment At Les begins pouring from its beating heart.

With an insistent, warm muted synth beat frittering on the wind, martial percussion building from a whisper, and a gathering storm of wordless vocal pads, this tune rolls imperceptibly deep at first. It gives me dystopian fantasy chills, some combination of black neon dance floor and crystal space cavern conjured in my head. The driving rhythm belies an ambient drift to the dynamics; by song’s end you’ve gone through the clouds and back, but At Les disappears without so much as an echo of where it went.

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The album itself, pictured above, is a true blue masterwork, and one of the best albums of the 1990’s  as far as I’m concerned. Several other tracks, including Red Lights and Televised Green Smoke, are in the same realm as this song, if not quite as iconic. Even if you’re a fan of Craig’s, you may have missed this opportunity (something about his myriad personas and hundreds of remix releases) and deserve to be as wowed as I am.

The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin

This album is GOD.

I haven’t been back to Optimistic Underground in a while.  There has been a lot going on in life but as always I’m continuously immersed in music.  Lately, with a few notable exceptions, I’ve been listening to a lot of my personal favorite albums in an effort to tap into the exhilaration of something I know I love.  I think I’m also looking for inspiration, and answers.  What elevated these particular pieces of music to a realm of formative life experiences?  These are the albums I used to burrow into for months, knowing every nook and cranny, knowing the texture and contours like my own skin.. and yet they’re a revelation once again with the right mixture of time, decay, perspective, distance, environment and attitude.  It’s probably more than that.  My ears have changed, not to mention my tastes.  Yet the true greats will always have a place; it takes at least time to sort them from the intense but short love affairs with slightly lesser albums.

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One of the most striking moments in my listening life happened the night I heard The Flaming Lips‘ 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin, driving though rural back roads with a friend who had just purchased the CD blindly.  He’d picked up Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and asked if the band was any good; I replied with some half thought that I’d heard “their older stuff was better” without any clue if I was even thinking of the right band.  In response, my friend bought the only other CD available and inadvertently changed my (musical) life forever.  The warbling tape orchestra, the out-of-nowhere bass thunder on the second track, and that melody on The Spark That Bled had me instantly.  I was distracted to the point that I remember images of my stereo, the booklet in my hands, the music and exclaiming about it, and not the drive itself.  The friend wanted a blank CD and I gave him one on the condition that I borrow this new Flaming Lips thing for the night.  I listened half a dozen times before bed.  I scoured the band’s website, where the entirety of Yoshimi and a handful of earlier album songs streamed free (this was extremely novel and rare at the time, about 2002).  I became a total diehard fan in a matter of weeks.

This is all to preface the fact that when I dug through my collection after moving – when the cds and vinyl are all out in the open like that, it’s easier to become excited about certain albums – I had a lurch in my heart toward this album.  I needed to hear it.  My soul was calling to it, or being called.  The next thing that happened was.. despite never having had much of an extended break from hearing it, I was getting the fresh, brightening outlook, rising sun, open chakra, wide eyed feeling all over again, a decade later.  The thing that meant most to me at the time, I believe, was this feeling of new possibilities and opportunities everywhere.  This adventurous, brave, open and attentive nature was overtaking me and my outlook on life literally widened in scope.  It was a confluence of events and life changes, but The Soft Bulletin crystallized that feeling in a single disc I could grasp forever.  It was exciting; all the rough, unnerving bits that hit me by surprise like sudden deer in the headlights became the very signposts for the change I was seeking.  This album is not only different from what the band was doing, what was accepted and loved in pop music, and what I’d been into until that moment, it actually embodies that jarring, eye-popping thunderclap of sudden and real change in life.  The songs each take off like a homemade rocket, reaching space against all odds in some miracle of ingenuity and love.  This is not something I take lightly.

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I came here today merely to share the following documentary but was overcome by my continent of feeling for this album.  I could drift for days on how this makes me feel.  I know it was released last year but I only came upon it during my recent binge and was blown away by the reverence and passion the band still have for this masterpiece.  It not only delves into the nuts-and-bolts creation of the music itself but also dissects a bit of what makes it such a personal touchstone for a certain set of folks.  If you’re already a fan, be prepared to have your nostalgia drive working overtime and keep the album handy for an inevitable post-viewing listen.  If you are unfamiliar, I kind of envy your position.  This is beautiful new territory, and in my view the documentary will make a perfect introduction.

I must note for the diehard fans that the audio used in most of this appears to be from the 5.1 and/or recent vinyl issue of the album.  If you’re as irredeemably familiar with this music as I am, it’ll be a nice experience to get hands on either of those releases and hear this music rendered in a slightly different (clearer?) light.

Destroyer – The Laziest River

When I purchased the 2lp edition of Destroyer‘s 2011 pop masterpiece Kaputt, I had no idea that the bonus track promised on side C would slowly become the languid circulatory system of the entire album.  It swims in an embryonic well from which the other tracks drink, all held breath and deep plunge.  It’s patient and fragile, and just may comprise twenty of my favorite minutes.

If you have only heard the standard tracklisting, press play now.  It’s rare when something labelled “bonus” actually elevates the experience of listening to a great album.  The Laziest River feels absolutely essential at this point, and while I sympathize with the probable intention of encouraging vinyl purchases, it seems unfair to leave everyone else with an unfinished story.  So buy it if you can, but this song can be downloaded and amended to your playlist for a quick fix.

Best Songs of 2012, part 2: “N.E.W.”

This will loop indefinitely over the Elysian fields of an afterlife of my design.

Actress (aka Darren Cunningham) redefined ambient beauty with this piece, lighting the spiritual wires from the organ works of Camille Saint-Saëns through Brian Eno’s Discreet Music while sparking fresh air to flame.  Blooming the color of Arvo Pärt’s devotional tilt in an exploratory space odyssey from the dreams of Oneohtrix Point Never or Stanley Kubrick, N.E.W. is uplifting and warm, alien and awestruck.  We’re inside a nebulous pipe organ riding the cusp of a singularity, dancing on the membrane between ascension and obliteration.  Let it repeat.

I should mention the video:  I have no clue where the footage is from, but it strangely works.  This copy was chosen mainly, however, because it can be set to 720p, so the sound quality is superb.

Best Songs of 2012, part 1: The internet can be pretty cool.

Before sharing a list of my favorite albums in 2012, I’d like to spread my love for the select tracks feeding my addiction throughout the year.  These are the tunes flying above and beyond their albums, the ones which dug in and nested in my brain for weeks or even months.  The first is easily my favorite track on Death Grips‘ breakthrough album The Money Store.  It’s called Hacker.

This frantic burst of nakedly violent energy feels like it’s on the verge of exploding from the get-go, yet impossibly doubles down on its momentum, throttling away like a madman in absolute command of his vehicle.  The spliced-digital-ADD edit of Ghost in the Shell footage is a stroke of genius pairing, as far as I’m concerned.  Work like this is what the youtube age is all about.  And why copyright laws are outdated.

While the album was loved and acclaimed by many of my friends, it was this track alone I felt completely enthralled by.  Hell, this thing punches first time listeners in the face.  I feel like a rocket every time I hear it.

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