Selected Ambient Works, 85-92

Aphex Twin, 1992

Aphex Twin Selected Ambient Works

Richard D. James will always be remembered as some sort of avant-bad-boy of 90s electronica. A masterful producer who single-handedly moved the genre as a whole forward (on multiple occasions), he was also an impish provocateur to have become the face of British electronica. For all his innovative releases, the one I spin most often is his rather unassuming, early collection: Selected Ambient Works 85-92. Essentially, it’s a gentle collection of room temperature synths and lightly pulsating rhythms, but even still, it was years ahead of its peers (even if the dates on the label are a lark). Each track is perfectly balanced between an austere minimalism and an inviting warmth.

In all honesty, this record is a time and place unto itself, for me Listening to it is an emotional mnemonic device that never fails to make me happier.

the Objective Flaws of Memory

Something was in the air between 1997 and 98.

I remember it as a banner year of electronica. Of course, memory can often serve under the yolk of nostalgia. For me, this period did not so much coincide with any notable time in my life, but instead marked the year many of the artists I'd been following—since my own coming of age—came to full fruition.

I was introduced to electronic music-proper my sophomore year of high school by the (now classic) Peel Sessions collection, by the Orb. I also quickly discovered Moby (which in retrospect is a bit cringe-worthy). After spending a good part of my junior year of high school at quasi-legal raves, around Portland. I graduated just in time to discover the advent of IDM or, as Warp would have it, Electronic Listening Music. This was when Aphex Twin, Autechre, µ-Ziq, Mouse on Mars, Plastikman and more all seemed to explode on the scene. They'd all been active for some time, especially in Europe, with a number of smaller releases under their belts, but here, across the pond, Warp's Artificial Intelligence compilation and Volume's Trance Atlantic Express introduced us to this new world, fully formed.

I collected this music obsessively, and many of these artists were prolific enough to make the task financially daunting. Things moved at a breakneck speed. Compare Autechre's debut with Tri Repetae which came out a mere 2 years later, or Aphex Twin's Surfing on Sine Waves (released as Polygon Window) with the Richard D. James Album.

Around 1995, as I was leaving Portland for Chicago, this lot started to be supplanted by the rise of drum-n-bass. My first find was a colored, double-10" collecting some of the landmark tracks from the nascent scene: including Omni Trio's Renegade Snares and 4Hero's Mr. Kirk's Nightmare. While I enjoyed the adrenal sound, it was all a little too close to house for me (a style I’ve a conflicted relationship with). I really caught on with the arrival of Squarepusher and his progish breakdowns.

In that first decade of electronica, since the advent of rave, the advancements were dizzyingly dense: from the rudimentary bang of Chicago Acid House to the beat dioramas of drill-n-bass. Most of this advancement was fueled by new tools. Look at the changes between the late-80s to the late 90s. In that time, personal computers became commonplace and were advancing exponentially themselves. This allowed new programs, effects and possibilities in electronica, almost monthly. Once you hit 1997-98, these new tools became more iterative, incremental. The changes we've seen in the music since is the difference between exploration and cartography.

I view this good turn positively. When you're grappling with new tools, you're inherently limiting your creative possibilities by placing creative choice behind discovery. The redoubling we've seen since the turn of the century has arguably produced much more expressive music with the same methods than anything that was released in that first decade. Sure, that slate of newer material lacked the radical thrill of the new, but it deepened everything you already knew.

The lines between genres begin to blur as well. Artists are no longer staking out new territory, but cultivating the fertile ground they’ve found. While everyone won’t hop on the same bandwagon, the zeitgeist from the reigning style seeps in on some level. Dubstep was the king of subgenres in the aughties, defined by its rich, detailed bass-sculpting. While I’m not much of a dubstep listener, those artists’ work, furthered bass science—reaping many rewards for me, elsewhere. All of my favorites artists gleaned new tricks from dubstep.

It’s also worth noting that in 1997 these artists I was following—even though they were dealing with a volatile, constantly-moving musical landscape—were, at this point, seasoned musicians. From 1997-98, you had a rare meeting of talent, possibility, experience and invention, together. Much of what’s been in vogue in the scene for the past 20 years were first seeded here. It’s why I see this one year as a totemic landmark in the scene’s becoming.