Well, this is disappointing.
There are better synth-pop songwriters than Richard James. (Stage name: Aphex Twin.) There are better electronic-music composers, better drum 'n' bass programmers, better ambient musicians, better found-sound collectors. But none has combined these elements as well as Aphex Twin did on 1997's Richard D. James Album. His records to that point had alternately whispered dilettante and genius, but James screamed both; it gave melodies to beats, rhythm to ambience, wit to wallpaper. Stuff that never should have worked ended up working--one of its best rhythm breaks consists of James' father shouting from outside his son's armored tank (don't ask). It was smart and inspired and just basically really fucking good. He followed it up with two singles and then promptly announced his retirement.
The two-disc, 30-song Drukqs doesn't quite have the swagger of a comeback. For one thing, when its release was announced earlier this year, it was rumored to contain outtakes and old recordings compiled by James to fulfill his contract. He's since denied the charge with some conviction, but the album itself does little to dispel such notions; it's a sprawling mess of a record, at least half of which plays like underachievement. One imagines that a musician capable of collaborating with Philip Glass would be well beyond simple rhythmic gymnastics ("Prep Gwarlek 36," "Orban Eq Trx4"), to say nothing of the Speak & Spell ("54 Cymru Beats"). (No idea about these song titles. Just none whatsoever.) But "beyond" isn't really even the issue; it's not so much that he covers familiar ground or digresses--it's that he does neither to his usual standard. Similarly, of the songs on which melody seems to be the point ("Bbdhyonchord"), none boasts a particularly pointed melody.
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James does trot out a couple of new obsessions, and he's predictably adept at both. The album opens with "Jynweythek," a quietly haunting number played on some sort of electronically modified piano that creates this wonderful ringing, chiming sound; it's used with equal effectiveness several times later. The other new development indulges an affection for Erik Satie: somber piano ballads ("Strotha Tynhe," "Avril 14th," "Kesson Daslef") for which the only polite adjective is pastoral. Perhaps fittingly, the album's highlight ("Beskhu3epm") combines the two directions and provides a neat reminder of what makes Aphex Twin's best work so exhilarating: flawless combination of disparate parts. On Drukqs, James too often settles for the parts alone. The result disappoints most by the standard of its predecessor; by any other, it's maddening, way too long and just a little bit great.