The new EP from Richard D. James, more commonly known by his alias Aphex Twin, is a smart and captivating piece of Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) that places heavy emphasis on rhythm rather than melody. Although clocking in at only 28 minutes, this five-track extended play is one of the most enthralling electronic releases of the year, even if it is less conceptual and grandiose than some of its lengthier contemporaries. Thankfully, James sticks to his guns instead of chasing modern EDM trends, as his music has always been too eclectic to embrace whatever production style is in vogue. Because of this, “Collapse” sounds as timeless as any of James’s classics, making it one of his best releases since the turn of the century.
James is, without a doubt, one of the greatest and most influential producers of electronic music in recent memory. His initial run of albums, from 1992’s “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” to 2001’s “Drukqs,” contain some of the most creative uses of synthesizers and drum machines ever put to tape. Unfortunately, James went on hiatus in 2001, dropping the Aphex Twin name and only releasing a few EPs under other aliases during this period. He returned in 2014 with his first Twin album in 13 years, “Syro” — a solid comeback, but definitely not a high point in his discography. Since then, he has also released two EPs, neither of which were quite up to snuff with the quality expected from an Aphex Twin project. As such, my expectations for this new EP were reserved, given the lackluster releases that preceded it. Fortunately, “Collapse” is James’s most consistent project since his return to the Aphex Twin name.
To anyone only familiar with James’s “Ambient Works” series, the songs on this EP will likely sound pretty jarring when compared to the laid-back and forward-thinking nature of those albums. However, “Collapse” is in many ways a return to the drill and bass style of techno that was prominent in his music during the latter half of the 1990s, most notably on 1996’s “Richard D. James Album.” This style is highlighted on the lead single and opening track of the EP, “T69 collapse.” Although the track lacks any sort of discernable melody for the most part, it makes up for this with its utterly berserk rhythm section. It’s a song that would be an absolute nightmare to reproduce on sheet music, as it’s a complete madhouse of glitchy synth leads and boisterous drum lines. The drum machine samples are the heart and soul of this track, and are incredibly engaging from start to finish.
The next track, “1st 44,” is easily the EP’s most unsettling movement. With an incomprehensible vocal sample at the beginning and eerie reverberating synth leads in its middle section, it’s one of the more sinister-sounding tracks James has ever dropped. I especially like the song’s final minute, in which it almost entirely loses its rhythm section and leaves the listener soaked in the track’s unearthly ambiance.
Following this is “MT1 t29r2,” which features strange cowbell samples and arpeggiated bleeps that sound straight out of an Atari game. The song has an odd structure as well; the initial melody halts abruptly and then returns at around the two minute mark. It also contains a brief ambient passage in the song’s latter half, which accommodates a very pleasant synth lead and the rare appearance of a distinguishable bassline.
The final two tracks on the EP are a bit weaker. “abundance” is the album’s most atmospheric track, and its excessive use of reverb makes it stick out like a sore thumb against the otherwise tight and punchy production that defines most of the project. It isn’t a bad song, but it’s a bit repetitive, and I don’t care much for the vocal sample it features. “pthex” closes the album off in good form, but it’s one of the least memorable tracks on “Collapse.” Aside from the contrast between the snappy percussion and the airy synths, there isn’t much of note to say about the track.
Of all the legendary electronic artists who have attempted to make comebacks this decade (Air, Massive Attack and Gas come to mind), Aphex Twin has had one of the more seamless returns. His oddball production techniques still sound fresh today, and he certainly hasn’t lost his ear for music. “Collapse” isn’t groundbreaking by any means, nor is it particularly conceptual. Instead, it is an eccentric and thoroughly enjoyable return to form for one of electronic music’s most revered artists. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, which is a pretty substantial compliment in the era of bloated triple albums that exist solely to bolster streaming numbers. In short, it’s everything an Aphex Twin fan could ask for.