Before releasing his masterful Syro in September, electronic music legend Aphex Twin had been "silent" for 13 years. Once regarded as electronic music's guiding light, his absence in part let the genre wander into some questionable trash-pop territory, garnering a largely negative reputation in the music community. Its sound became more associated with Skrillex and his brand of EDM than with its founders.
But that has only primed audiences for Aphex Twin's return. Critics widely regarded his album as one of the crowning musical achievements of the year, with some specifically positioning it as a loving and human alternative to the excesses of modern EDM. Really, the album is just another flawless representation of the highly textural and elusive electronic music Aphex Twin has been pioneering since 1991. And when he released a new 10-track EP last week, he proved once and for all that he's out to show electronic music what it was always meant to do: Innovate and change our idea of what music can be.
Aphex Twin has always been committed to innovation. That's the exact opposite of what people associate with EDM — "predictable," "generic" and "cheesy" would probably ring more bells. But while these may describe the endlessly derivative, maddeningly monotonous bump and grind of recent artists like Skrillex, Diplo or David Guetta, they can't represent the genre's long and vital history. Aphex Twin is the kind of electronic musician we should celebrate as the genre's biggest star. Judging by the strength of the first of his (hopefully numerous) offerings, 2015 might be the year that starts.
This has always been his role in the genre. Since his very first studio release, Selected Ambient Works 85–92, Aphex Twin has been instrumental in bringing electronic music out of the dance clubs and into a more meditative and artistic space. He's constantly pushed new sounds, techniques and styles, building many of his own instruments and compositional software programs to expand his musical palette. He created a primitive precursor to drum and bass music with the rapid fire percussive patterns on 1992's "Tamphex." On 2000's "Windowlicker," his most famous single, he brought further nuance to that rhythmically unpredictable style and his fascinatingly glitchy visual aestethic. Its mildly terrifying video delivers a NSFW critique of '90s pop video tropes and our culture's obsession with celebrity.
The loping rhythmic patterns and ghostly but irresistable melodic stylings he pioneered have influenced artists across genres. As Grantland points out, "basically any Timbaland, any recent Radiohead or Radiohead-influenced bands or pretty much any bit of electronic music since the mid-'90s" all drew their inspirations from Aphex Twin. Thom Yorke once credited Aphex Twin's music for completely revolutionizing the artistic direction of Radiohead's later albums: "Aphex opened up another world that didn't involve my fucking electric guitar, and I was just so jealous."
Listen to Radiohead's Kid A alongside songs like "Girl/Boy Song" off the Richard D. James album and you'll see the Aphex Twin stamp clear as day.
Aphex Twin was even a huge influence on Skrillex. In December 2011, Skrillex posted Aphex Twin's "Flim" on his Facebook, calling it his "fav song of all time." It seems Skrillex has good taste, but he has yet to master anything close to the song's organic and effortless melodic sensibilities, even though his own fame is much greater.
Aphex Twin even commented on the radical difference between his and Skrillex's music in a recent Q&A hosted by Groove magazine. The feature allowed popular electronic artists like Hot Chip, Caribou and Nicolas Jaar to ask questions of the master. Swiss-Chilean DJ Luciano asked Aphex Twin's thoughts on the current EDM scene.
"It's fine. I actually don't care what people are doing. I just care about what they're actually playing. It doesn't feel related to anything I'm doing," he said. "This guy Skrillex, I've only heard about his tracks, because my kids played them. It sounds like he has a good grasp of technology. I think it's pretty poppy, isn't it? It's too poppy for me."
That's because electronic music is often thought of as cheap, almost disposable. Aphex Twin offers a striking, necessary alternative to that attitude. EDM has gone full-on pop, chasing the next huge satisfying drop, so much so that it's lost all sense of structural and sonic innovation. Now that Aphex Twin is finally back, he may be set to once again take the controls and drive electronic music towards a brighter new future. Even Skrillex would agree it's time.