Richard D. James Album
Spring Heel jack
68 Million Shades
By Peter Margasak
When an underground dance artist starts to make albums instead of singles–which are the only legitimate currency of the underground–he’s in essence made a decision to leave the club scene. But not all such artists are leaving for the same reason. In the sudden ascendance of “electronica”–the ridiculously broad new marketing category intended to swallow up everything from some of the most experimental music being made to the modern equivalent of disco–it’s the acts that act most familiar that have garnered the most attention. Prodigy, Underworld, and the Chemical Brothers have clambered up eagerly from the nether regions at the first sight of the river of money that is the mainstream, not only making full-length records but also employing prominent vocals, making videos, and hitting the rock-club circuit–all considered essential for striking gold in the United States. The newest releases from Aphex Twin and Spring Heel Jack are no more designed for club listening than the latest work by any of those bands, but their desertion of the milieu is artistic rather than blatantly commercial.
Aphex Twin is the most recognized of Richard D. James’s numerous aliases (AFX, Polygon Window, and GAK among them), and under this name he was a club favorite in the late 80s. James, a true experimentalist, has drifted from unusually substantive techno (Selected Ambient Works 85-92) to spare and creepy soundscapes (Selected Ambient Works Volume II) to punishing, hip-hop-inflected attacks (…I Care Because You Do) to hypnotically relentless grooves (Donkey Rhubarb, which included a collaboration with Philip Glass). Like most of his previous output, James’s latest effort, the cheekily titled Richard D. James Album, giddily overlays serene, almost banal synthesizer melodies with harsh, jarring rhythmic programming. For the latter, this time James turns his attention to drum ‘n’ bass, the preferred underground style of the last few years–and he makes mincemeat of it.
Most drum ‘n’ bass either manipulates breakbeat samples or uses sophisticated drum programming. James, something of a cranky Luddite for the electronic music world, uses more primitive drum machines, many of them jury-rigged, to create his percussive front line. Unlike standard drum ‘n’ bass beats, which are both sharp and bass-heavy, Aphex Twin’s are squeaky and rubbery, recalling the squelchy rhythms of early Kraftwerk. Despite the sometimes triple-speed rhythms that distinguish drum ‘n’ bass, either the bass lines or a secondary rhythm provides the club-goer with something to dance to; such is not the case with the Richard D. James Album. While there’s a definite twisted funkiness to something like “Cornish Acid,” many of the tunes break down unpredictably, either radically shifting tempi (“Peek 824542,01”) or ditching fixed rhythm altogether in favor of wan synth textures (“4”). The dense percussion on a track like “4” does little but beat down the fragile little melody that flutters beneath it.
Extreme juxtaposition is a favorite tack of Aphex Twin. The almost absurdly complex rhythms of “Yellow Calx” flow over a solemn, church-organ-like drone. On “To Cure a Weakling Child” a childlike melody and anatomy check (“My feet, my arms, and my ears”) are intersected by a disorienting barrage of changing rhythms. “Girl/Boy Song,” the album’s nominal single, accomplishes the same merry incongruity by pitting a hooky orchestral melody–including pizzicato strings, glockenspiel, flute, and bassoon–against the head-spinning drum program. Such complex maneuvers place James in an odd position somewhere between serious composer and computer technician–but at any rate a lot closer to the former than a techno bore like Moby, whose New Agey twaddle is constantly being mistaken for “neoclassical melodies.”
For all of James’s virtuosity, he remains a prankster. The predominant sounds on “Logan Rock Witch” are slide whistle and Jew’s harp, hardly the instruments of choice in electronic music. “Milkman” begins as a quaint lullaby about milk, but before long James, sounding vaguely like Syd Barrett, warbles, “I would like some milk from the milkman’s wife’s tits.” But his boldest subversion here is formal: Most electronic pieces are hopelessly long-winded, taking ten minutes to say what could easily be said in five. Even with the added bonus of the UK-only Girl/Boy EP, the album clocks in at just over 43 minutes, but it realizes more ideas than most electronic albums can in 75.
68 Million Shades, the second album from Spring Heel Jack, is almost 76 minutes long, but the duo’s heavily motific gems unfold in a beautifully organic way. The duo (Brits John Coxon and Ashley Wales) is perhaps best known for collaborating with Everything but the Girl and remixing Tortoise, but its own music offers a fascinating spin on drum ‘n’ bass, creating expansive, groove-heavy instrumentals with cinematic flair. While SHJ’s production work on EBTG’s “Walking Wounded” mostly just lent drum ‘n’ bass accents to a pop song, the music on 68 Million Shades is far more complicated. Most junglists concentrate on crafting complex rhythm tracks while draping faux-jazz washes in the background (LTJ Bukem) or using practically nothing but bass (Dillinja). SHJ fortifies its tricky rhythmic schemes with luscious nuggets of melody and texture. In interviews Coxon and Wales have insisted that they still make dance music, and they do–but their music is also substantive enough to take home.
Most of the 12 cuts on their new record use catchy little kernels sampled from guitars and horns or played on synthesizers, usually no more than three or four notes, which not only anchor the tunes but serve as launch pads too. “60 Seconds” opens with a lounge-jazz saxophone riff that coaxes the rhythm into a quasi-samba groove, while “Pan” merges a snatch of sentimentally sweet strings with eerie synth textures to create a fine tension with the almost martial beats. On “Eesti” a sharp, bass-heavy program contrasts with the maudlin feel of a Parisian cafe on a dreary day, as a synth emulates the melancholy melody of an accordion in the distance. “Roger Tessier” too has a sound-track feel, manipulating a twangy guitar line to sound like something written by John Barry crossed with something by Ennio Morricone.
The album’s high-octane closer, “Take 3,” proves that SHJ can vie with hard-step heavies like Doc Scott, but as euphoric as their beats get, Coxon and Wales still manage to cram in an atmospheric interlude before the rhythms collapse under their own weight. It’s not all perfect–“Take 2” drags along without doing much of anything–but like Aphex Twin, Plug, Squarepusher, and a handful of others, on 68 Million Shades Spring Heel Jack broadens the scope and appeal of club music without toning it down for the lowest common denominator.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.