Album Review: Aphex Twin – Caustic Window




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Richard D. James is one of the most iconic names in all of electronic music, yet he has remained one of the industry’s most enigmatic forces over the last 30 years. Best known as the creative force behind Aphex Twin, James, now 42, spent considerable time behind his array of analog and digital synthesizers (many hand-engineered) under an assortment of monikers, from his earliest acid house releases as ATX to the rave-techno of GAK and the breakbeat hardcore of Power-Pill. Often associated with some of the most unlistenable noise to ever come out of experimental label Warp, Aphex Twin actually arose from an extended series of celestial ambient works. Regularly shifting between these monikers, no steadfast wall of differential was ever erected, at least not one that James was capable of immediately dismantling with his schizophrenic waveforms. These many aesthetics truly began to coalesce when James took on the Caustic Window pseudonym in 1998 to complete the 13-track electronic freak-out Compilation. Four years prior, James was first experimenting with the Caustic Window sound, but the LP never made it to the public. Thanks to a fan base as passionate as any, Caustic Window is now available two decades after the original release.

Near the height of his prolific release schedule (he would release over 10 discs between 1994 and 1996), why would only five people, all affiliated with the Rephlex label, ever receive a test pressing? Fifteen tracks in length, the album commences with an ambient techno stutter that reflects the work of fellow British producers that were spinning near the country’s infamous Orbital Motorway. Unlike today’s rigid production tactics, there is an uneasy fluidity within lead track “Flutey”. Akin to the later work under the Caustic Window alias, the cut grows from minimal plucks into something far more aurally challenging. These layered effects give character to later tracks like the diminutive “Fingry”, which eventually develops into psych-techno, and the nightmare-inducing demented music box known as “Revpok”. Both are snapshots of James’ career. The brutality and analog beauty transcend the differentiation between noise and music, though this notion doesn’t resonate across the entire album.

Track four, the bouncy electro and deep bassline of “Popeye”, extinguishes at 78 seconds in. Also less than 90 seconds long, “Afx Tribal Kick” is little more than a production tool or DJ sample. Propelled with the funkiest foundations of the Aphex Twin catalog, “Jazzphase” closes like a saxophone player well past his last breath.

As both James and the label he runs are notorious perfectionists, these small hiccups could very well have been the primary factors on deciding to scrap the project. However, even though it might have taken the work of a handful of diehards to send the record out to the masses, the essence of the project was never truly lost. The primarily percussion-less intro of “101 Rainbows” is unmistakable across Vol. II of Selected Ambient Works, which also came out in 1994. Although a face probably isn’t hidden within the chaos of “Phlaps”, it arrives from a similar twisted brain as 1999’s “[Equation]”. And the itchy broken techno that pulses through “Stomper 101mod Detunekik” as well as the comedic relief to close the album (“Phone Pranks”) reemerges throughout AFX’s Analogue Bubblebaths.

The greatest gems within this collection highlight James’ foresight into electronic dance music. Working on the fringes of techno and house music, Caustic Window contains early examples of now trending tech-house. Despite being produced when Detroit’s Jimmy Edgar was only 11 years old, “Fingertips” would fit nicely (sans the breakbeat kick) within that DJ’s 2014 sets. “Squidge in the Fridge”, however, seems to arrive from the future. A cornucopia of underground sounds and a trance melodic arc, the selection could conceivably work its way into sets from artists on labels ranging from Anjunabeats to dirtybird.

With the last of the Aphex Twin (as opposed to his less-known aliases) compilations landing in 2003 as 26 Mixes for Cash, the growing EDM community needed this album to surface. That’s an action that Rephlex and James were extremely reluctant to do, considering the permission they gave a fan to legally reproduce and distribute copies of the album, plus subsequently to sell the test pressing. For those willing to give the album a few moments, Caustic Window, in addition to the recently released EX by Plastikman, offers a history and context to the current work of producers like Gesaffelstein and Boys Noize. This release might not have lived up to the lofty standards of the label (a powerful statement in an industry that has become complacent with regurgitated basslines and melodies), yet it remains relevant in a community of constant transition. Now, if James will only come back to a U.S. stage to overwhelm us all with these tracks.

Essential Tracks: “Flutey”, “Jazzphase”