Though the length of Richard D. James's absence from the electronic scene has been overstated by people who neglect his less famous aliases, it HAS been almost a decade since we got new music from him, and yes, the release of Syro is a welcome surprise. It is less abrasive (by my tastes, at least) than the aggressive beats found on his previous Aphex Twin album, Drukqs (I'm thinking of the blast-beat assault of 'drill-n-bass' tracks such as "Omgyiya Switch 7"); like Drukqs, Syro offers a wide variety of styles, but the whiplash factor is absent; there are no juxtapositions of frenetic computerized beats and beatless ambient piano pieces here.
Instead, the album flows. Drukqs was hard to listen to; Syro is downright ingratiating -- funky at times, occasionally even sexy or at least sensual. Even though the fastest track comes right before the closing ambient track, the former has so much space in its arrangement that there's a lightness to it that eases us into the following mellowness. Which is not to say James has gotten less weird or stimulating. I don't review a lot of beat-oriented electronica because most of it strikes me as overly repetitious and foursquare; it quickly becomes boring. James, by contrast, is always changing things up, and I don't just mean from track to track; his beats are often asymmetrical and don't really repeat as much as one might superficially think. He's also got a great melodic sense; of course this comes through strongly on the piano stuff (here, the final track, "aisatsana"), but also on the beat-heavy tracks, where there are all sorts of little hooks (such as the wild bass line of "CIRCLONT14"). As some folks have noted, there's nothing all that innovative here (though he does finally incorporate human voices, something of a surprise within his oeuvre), but there doesn't have to be; James has already perfected his style.
A brilliant debut album that stylistically falls between The XX and Burial, with a similar sense of space in the production and a fair amount of the asymmetrical rhythms favored by the latter in particular. FKA twigs (AKA Tahliah Barnett) recently refuted her categorization as "alt-R&B" in an interview with The Guardian, declaring, "It's just because I'm mixed race.... When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: 'I've never heard anything like this before, it's not in a genre.' And then my picture came out six months later, now she's an R&B singer. [...]It's got loud noises in there, the structures aren't typical, it's relentless. It's like punk; fuck alternative R&B!" One might dismiss that as the usual artists-hate-to-be-labeled reaction, but she's absolutely right. The sound is way more sparse, and her voice is much lighter, than in R&B of pretty much any current stripe, and the few bits that do reflect R&B are in the minority and quickly pass. Her lyrics can be lewd, but with such a deadpan delivery that lascivious pandering seems not to be her intent, just a matter-of-fact description of a young woman's life in the 21st century. A strong contender for album of the year.
This is a 2013 album that barely got any distribution, reissued with a new title and three bonus tracks. One of the latter, "Renaissance Man," is a tribute to guitarist/composer Michael Dunford, who died shortly after the recording of the original version. Although lead singer Annie Haslam and Dunford are the only players from the band's classic 1972-79 incarnation, and obviously production styles have changed due to different equipment, etc., Haslam's voice and Dunford's writing so defined the band's sound that this is instantly recognizable as a Renaissance album. That is true even with the contributions of a few special guests: Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) plays flute on "Cry to the World," and John Wetton (for a brief, unrecorded period in 1971-2, bassist of Renaissance, just before he achieved fame in King Crimson, followed by U.K. and Asia) sings, in his instantly recognizable voice, a duet with Haslam on "Blood Silver Like Moonlight." The multi-section/multi-mood, epic prog style of such classics as "Scheherazade" is heard here on the Da Vinci-inspired title track. Most of the other tracks are concise songs, though no less ur-Renaissance, though after a few listens nothing as catchy as "Carpet of the Sun" or "Northern Lights" has leapt out. Haslam's voice is not quite as strong as in her heyday, but her range is still impressive, and she puts her lyrics across with exquisite sensitivity.
The electronics that featured occasionally on their 2005 breakthrough album Set Yourself on Fire (on the title track, "The Big Fight," etc.) were part of a sonic gumbo that also included strings, horns, and plenty of guitars; now their evolution into an act that's far more focused on, and defined by, electronica seems to dominate even though some observers have overstated it – there are guitars and more-or-less rock beats on "This Is the Last Time," "Turn It Up," "Trap Door," and the New Order-ish "Are You OK?" and a return to strings on "What Is to Be Done?". Some fans are not happy (peruse the comments attached to this album on Rdio.com: "bubble gum crap," "contemporary dance bullshit"), yet their distinguishing characteristics -- the dual male/female vocals of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan, their highly personal lyrics, a fondness for varied textures, clever spoken-word samples (I hear Duke Ellington once or twice, among others) -- remain strong. Gone are the freakouts such as "He Lied About Death" (replaced by quiet, pretty, stripped-down intros), but also gone are such horrible missteps as the desecratory remix album Do You Trust Your Friends? and the dreary In Our Bedroom, After the War. They have become a reliable source of catchy tunes and knock-out lyrics, which are pretty dark here, perhaps shadowed by the cancer diagnosis of their longtime manager, though they've always had a brooding side. I suspect the disgruntled listened once expecting to be instantly entranced at the same level as they are by the Stars albums they've listened to hundreds of times. Music just doesn't work that way, or more to the point, our brains don't work that way. I've listened more than once, and this is another fine album from these Canadians, with a few tracks -- notably the aforementioned "Trap Door" -- as good as anything they've done before.
A 2013 reissue, this recently became timely again when it was announced that Jefferies was to perform in the U.S. for the first time in decades. Then the visa police decided that we were not to have the privilege of hearing this New Zealand songwriter/pianist/co-leader of legendary post-punk band Nocturnal Projections. Thus, De Stijl's reissue (on CD and vinyl) of this 1991 (or '90 according to Wikipedia) album originally released on cassette by Xpressway is your best chance to hear him (and now includes the contents of the 7-inch "The Fate of the Human Carbine"/"Catapult"). Most of the 14 lo-fi, moody, sometimes abrasive songs are delivered in a monotone that's sometimes bitter, sometimes sullen, sometimes resigned. Arrangements range from solo piano (the beautiful "Neither do I") to full-on rock band with raging guitar (sometimes by fellow Plagal Grind member Robbie Muir, as on the great "Catapult" -- another Plagal Grind member, Alastair Galbraith, also shows up on two tracks). On first listen it may sound amateurish, but the deeper you get into it, the more compelling Jefferies's grim vision turns out to be. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days. He and Mr. Shipp also spoke for another feature published elsewhere.