Jon Savage on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92

Jon Savage's 1992 review of Aphex Twin's landmark album, 20 years after its release.

Twenty years ago this week, Apollo released Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works 1985-92. I know it’s a landmark album, you know it’s a landmark album, and, as the below piece shows, Jon Savage knows it’s a landmark. Taken from an early issue of Jockey Slut, the legendary post-punk writer and critic calls its importance early on, saluting its sound of a “popular, trans-national future”.

Appearances first. Aphex comes with black on white archetypal, boomerang shape within a perfect circle. The boomerang is not as nature intended it, but carefully designed: techno primitivism. On the back, the boomerang is cut up four ways – an echo of Velvet Underground 3. Biosphere: silver on black, sperm meets egg. The information is conveyed in blue on black. The sperm head resembles an eye. Its tail wags. (1)

Aphex Twin: 13 cuts, all instrumental; the minimum 1’13”, the maximum 9’01”. Titles like Xtal, Green Calx, Actium : a new classicism belied by sheer playfulness. A seamless 74:46, relying on a mid-paced dance beat, heavy on percussion effects. (These are often distorted due to analog). On the top, synth improv + modulations: mostly melodic and texturally absorbing.

Everything shifts quickly here, gliding past occasional fussiness; prog tendencies. Like the Eno material to which it pays tribute, “Selected Ambient” works as background, foreground, and better in motion – best in the NW, three in the morning, an infinity of sodium lights moving up and down the hills.

Aphex is almost all light but Schottkey 7th Path taps the melancholia – a warm bath of sadness – inherent in the genre from its originators Kraftwerk (Franz Schubert). Euro moves to English romanticism; a recognition of things passed and yet within that, a sense of things to come.

Biosphere is dark moving occasionally into light. 9 cuts: less abstract titles than Aphex, all earth/archetype motivated – Cloudwalker 11, Cygnus-A, Baby Interphase. Its 47:17 is more traditionally ambient in its deep electronic sonorities. That URRRRRRRRR sound. Plentiful synth melodies but very few, and whispered vocals (Baby Satellite). A plentiful use of soundbites: ‘the risk is great: the decision of course, is yours/ Can we make it back to earth?’ (Tranquiliser).

There are terrors and silences. Soundbite from The Fairy Tale (male voice): ‘I looked across the square and watched the tourists burning in blue fire. They had gasoline that burned in all colours by then. Just look at them out there: all those little figures dissolving in light. Rather like a fairyland isn’t it? (Edit) Except for the smell of gasoline and burning flesh.’

The ebb and flow here, between fast and slow, between playful and awful, between moon and sun, holds some of the queasy, constant motion within which we live. There is a resolution (Biosphere): the sound of technology and melody – at one point the repetitive thrum of heavy industry, at another an electronic alarm merges into a bass pulse and atmospheric FX, warning but enclosing. The last sound is wind.

Overfertile in production, popular music always throws up lines that are discontinued, ideas that are delivered ready to go but are never quite followed up until a few years later. What ‘postmodernism’ (in its cultural meaning) can describe is not the over referencing of depoliticisation favoured by the mass media, but a creative use of that period in Western history, now coming to a close, when overproduction was built into the system. Just think of how Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 Wheels of Steel was eventually followed up by the record that initiated the sampling boom of 86/87 and thus most contemporary black music, Double Dee and Steinski’s “Lessons One, Two and Three”. In another area, just think of how the forgotten drive of Neu’s E-Musik (from “Neu 75”) finds a home on Julian Cope’s extraordinary Necropolis (“Jehovahkill”).

The purpose of this is not to engage in a debate about postmodernism but to suggest that there is another way of looking at a phenomenon almost universally described in pejorative or dismissive terms. Because this is where the problem lies, not necessarily in popular culture itself, but in the discourse around popular culture – especially the Fleet Street broadsheets. Most of the still burgeoning youth/pop/culture media completely fails to do its job.

I spent most of 1992 in motion along M numbers: M40, M1, M56, M6, M42, M3. This kind of travel becomes satisfyingly mathematical, after a while it favours the mathematical grid of music, and a particular kind of grid at that. Around October, I got severely bored with being retro and started looking hard for a new kind of music that I knew would be out there: I had to rely on my intuition because almost nobody was writing about it (2). I had a nose to follow several lines: the Detroit Techno I’d re-encountered when researching the Hacienda booklet: Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson – the usual suspects: the cinematic serialism/minimalism of Harold Budd. John Hassell and the Eno ambient series: the sheer visionary glee of 1966-8 US and UK psych; the lost modernism of late 70’s electronic experiments by Pete Shelley (“Cinema Music and Wallpaper Sounds”) or the Human League (Dignity of Labour Pts 1-4).

The Aphex Twin, Biosphere and others – Sandoz, Musicology, Cosmic Baby – are what I was looking for. As the Knowledge newsletter, with its passionate communiques, attests, this music is part of a new way of looking at the world, a new language; minimal, cool, romantic, passionate. It’s very relaxing; at last, things are happening. If it has to have a name, call it pre-millennial, pre-whatever you want, all this post stuff makes you think that everything is over. But it’s only just begun.

Jon Savage is a music journalist and author. His books include England’s Dreaming, The Hacienda Must Be Built and Teenage, which is currently being filmed.

This graphic style is crossing over already into publication like the Knowledge Club broadsheet – Info Transmission. Read it: c/o Knowledge, SW1 Club, 191 Victoria Club, London SW1 5NE. Except I-D, December 1992 Issue.

Another reference: check out Black Sheep’s Similab Child (from “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”, Mercury) which loops Jefferson Airplane’s Today (from 1967’s “Surrealistic Pillow”, which can also be found on the new RCA 3xCD “Loves You” boxed set).

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