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In Left Field: Aphex Twin's 'Drukqs'

A Re-Examination of Aphex Twin's Magnum Opus

A decade ago, three albums were released to various levels of critical acclaim: Aphex Twin’s Drukqs, Radiohead’s Amnesiac, and Four Tet’s Pause. Aphex Twin had not released an album in five years at this point. Meanwhile, Radiohead was coming off the wildly successful Kid A and Four Tet, apart from his work with Fridge, had a well-received solo debut in 1999 with Dialogue. Aphex Twin’s record, after such a long wait, garnered generally negative and mediocre reviews. Radiohead’s follow-up to Kid A got a positive response (with some room for hesitancy and backlash - critics aren’t likely to say two albums released so close together are both masterpieces, if they can help it). Four Tet’s sophomore effort was applauded all around, with few exceptions.

Now, before we go any further here, I have to clarify a few things. When it comes to debates between “subjective” criticism and “objective” criticism, I fall into the “subjective” camp every time. The idea that you can objectively quantify the quality of a record on a numerical scale is, to me, preposterous. There are people in the world that would give Kid A every score from 0.0 to 10.0, and the only reason that any of those respective numbers have any interest to me as a reader is the logic behind them. More power to you if you say it deserves a 1.5, or a 8.9, or a 3.14, as long as your argument is convincing (and ideally entertaining, but I don’t want to ask for too much here).

So the ideal circumstance within which to write about music is that of the New York Times’ or The Wire magazine’s record review sections, or if you’re lucky a long-form feature format in a place like Spin or (R.I.P.) Creem. The point is: no numbers, just words. That being said, attaching a number to a record becomes useful as a shorthand for the aggregate of critical response. Reading dozens  of reviews, carefully parsing the language, weighing the pros and cons put forth in each, and summarizing how a record was initially critically received for any type of historical survey would take hours and hours and would ultimately not be any more trustworthy as a system. Numbers are helpful, then, but only when there are a lot of them.

Now, to return to our three albums and compare their critical reception from a decade ago. Content aggregators like Metacritic.com are the most helpful and readily available resource for these types of comparisons. My extremely unscientific process is to compare the Metacritic scores for these three records to prove at least to some extent their differences in critical reception. But what I’m really interested in is the reasoning behind this discrepancy. What follows is a brief summary of the aggregate scores from Metacritic.

Four Tet - Pause: 85 (Universal Acclaim)
High: 100 (PopMatters); Low: 60 (Q Magazine)

Radiohead - Amnesiac: 75 (Generally Favorable Reviews)
High: 90 (Pitchfork); Low: 40 (The Wire)

Aphex Twin - Drukqs: 66 (Generally Favorable Reviews)
High: 100 (Dot Music); Low: 20 (Rolling Stone)

Although both Amnesiac and Drukqs got “Generally Favorable Reviews” according to Metacritic, the cutoff point between that category and “Mixed or Average Reviews” is given as 60. So we have three big albums from heavy hitters in the electronic music world, all of which came out within six months of one another. One can generally be called “great,” one “good,” and one “average-to-good.”

So what?

Artists have records flop all the time. It’s not hard to explain. Amnesiac was seen as a sort of B-side companion to the masterful Kid A; therefore, it was considered good but not great. Pause was the sophomore album of a rising star, and Four Tet had the momentum of a new genre - “folktronica” - riding behind him. Critics love creating new genre tags and then scrambling to classify all the related artists into niches and sub-niches. Look, for instance, at Washed Out and everything associated with chillwave. Drukqs, meanwhile, was a lumbering, pretentious, incoherent, 30-song set from an artist whose relevance seemed to end in the middle nineties. There were those dedicated to the idea of Aphex Twin who gave him obligatory high marks, and there were those eager to tear him down on grounds that he was too intellectual, too out of touch.

The thing is, though, that critics explicitly cited the exact same reasons for loving Kid A and Amnesiac and objecting to Drukqs. Allmusic’s five-star review of Kid A* said Radiohead “strove for the unsettling ‘intelligent techno’ sound of Autechre and Aphex Twin, with skittering beats and stylishly dark sonic surfaces.” When reviewing Drukqs, which is for all intents and purposes nothing but “skittering beats and stylishly dark sonic surfaces,” Allmusic gave it three stars, objecting to its “feel of recordings long since past, from the quiet ambient techno of his [Richard James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin] breakthrough, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, to the demonically extroverted programming of Richard D. James Album and the Come to Daddy EP.”

So Radiohead get acclaim for integrating Aphex Twin’s groundbreaking sonic experiments into their sound, while Aphex Twin himself gets not much more than a shrug for continuing with those experiments. This is not to say, of course, that Radiohead did not deserve credit for Kid A. To so flawlessly integrate such strange music into the context of an arena rock band, and to do so at that time in their career, was genuinely important (both for them as a band and for rock music in general). But without Selected Ambient Works 85-92 or Richard D. James Album, songs like “Treefingers” and “Idioteque” couldn’t exist.

Radiohead - "Treefingers" (Extended Version)

You can do a similar comparison between Drukqs and Pause. Four Tet was rewarded for introducing organic elements into electronic music, and blurring the boundaries between “computer music” and acoustic music. Introducing piano pieces into an album like Drukqs, though, was considered inconsistent, even incoherent. This was Richard James being pretentious. It was confusing to hear a Satie-inspired piano track after a breakbeat, so obviously it was hubris or some kind of mistake. I don’t want to spend too much time making these sorts of comparisons between criticisms, but you get the idea. Compare negative reviews of Drukqs to positive reviews of one of these other albums, and they will likely use similar language toward opposite ends. Drukqs is overlong and incoherent, while Kid A/Amnesiac is ambitious in scale and variety; Pause’s innovative use of found sound is Drukqs’ lazy use of found sound.

At this point the question seems obvious. What’s more important, innovation or context? Or, to put it another way, how long can an artist get by before a change of direction is expected of them? Radiohead was heralded for their “departure,” while critics complained Aphex Twin was moving backward (to quote Radiohead here, “I go forwards, you go backwards, and somewhere we will meet”).

Under these conditions, to see the value in Drukqs requires not so much a re-contextualization as a de-contextualization. What we have (and this sentiment has increased, I think, over the decade since the album’s release), is thirty songs by one of the most brilliant electronic producers we’re likely to see for some time. And the overwhelming majority of these songs represent him at his best. A hypothetical qualitative list of Aphex Twin’s best would have a few of these near the top (here’s lookin’ at you, “Jynwythek Ylow” and “Bbydhyonchord”). Just because his best meant something different in 2001 than it did in 1996 is not necessarily grounds for rebuke. The shock factor was gone in 2001, after waiting five years for another grand experiment and “only” receiving more of the same. But now it’s been gone for some time, and we can listen to these songs without forced expectations.

Aphex Twin - "Jynwythek Ylow"
If there was one major complaint about the record, it would be that it jumps around too much, there is no focus, it doesn’t have a consistent arc. I would argue, however, that this is a rare instance of a record that works because the songs don’t fit together. Aphex Twin’s music has always invited people to participate in it, whether it be through remixes or through slightly weirder methods. It is my contention that Drukqs can be seen both as a questioning of the limitations or boundaries of electronic music and an invitation to reorganize, to shuffle the tracks, to delete the ones that don’t fit. Do these piano ballads count as electronica? Should these breakbeats be thought of as compositions in a classical sense? Where do we draw the line? If piano ballads don’t sound right when placed next to breakbeats, that’s fine. Leave ‘em out and make your own Aphex Twin record. 2001, after all, was the perfect time to release such an experiment. This type of “make the listener a collaborator” experiment now seems passe. Kria Brekkan and Avey Tare, for example, released an album a few years ago that required the listener to reverse the tracks in a sound editor to hear them as they were originally recorded. But a decade ago, when Kid A was lauded for its coherence as an album and Drukqs was written off as “two different albums competing and thus canceling each other out” (Billboard), it took innovation and ingenuity to release such an apparently incomprehensible double disc record. Today, Drukqs should be taken at face value, for what it is: thirty Aphex Twin songs, most of which are terrific, to be taken singularly or as a group, in whatever order you choose. This is, after all, computer music, even if it does have some piano parts.

 

*A little necessary background for those unfamiliar: Kid A and Amnesiac were recorded in the same sessions following the breakthrough success of OK Computer. They were released a year apart, and even though the band stated they were to be taken as separate entities, the usual critical approach is to either look at them together as a long double album or to look at Amnesiac as a sort of B-side compilation to Kid A’s “big statement” album.

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Aphex Twin
Four Tet
Radiohead

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