Avant Gardner, New York
Earlier this year, a New Jersey record store owner came across a long forgotten cassette tape he’d made sometime in the mid-90s. This tape contained an hour-long bootleg of a young Aphex Twin playing hard and fast techno in New York City’s Limelight, the former church turned hedonistic Club Kid palace that defined the last gasp of Manhattan clubland excess in the pre-Giuliani era. Listening to the tape today is an undeniably special experience; a rare snapshot of the radically different past of both Aphex Twin and the New York City dancefloor.
Last week, Richard D James returned to New York, the first time in decades, for a highly anticipated set this week at Brooklyn’s Avant Gardner. Sandwiched in between the electronic music legend’s first ever Mexican appearance and a pair of high profile Coachella performances, Thursday night found the artist at a confident high, blasting through an all-encompassing assault of noise and calamity old and new for an eager and entranced crowd.
After an ominous ambient set from Switzerland’s Aïsha Devi, Richard D James took the stage alongside collaborator and wife Anastasia Rybina and began what would be a 90-minute bout of cackling theatre combat. Flanked by an array of expertly utilised video screens and one of the most impressive lighting rigs Brooklyn has ever seen, Aphex Twin appeared sporadically visible by design, far from the visual focal point on stage which is notable considering he probably has one of the most recognisable mugs in dance music.
Famously anonymous visual artist Weirdcore manned the display screens with precision and glee, as live edited footage of faces in the crowd was dissolved into a kind of dark psychedelic wormhole. A glimpse at a breakdancing cartoon bear in a Knicks jersey provided the first of many New York specific visual cues of the night. Most notably the thrilling collage of dozens of famous NYC icons, all edited with Aphex’s signature demented grin. The individuals featured including the faces of 70s punk (Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, The Ramones), 80s downtown art world (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring), outer borough hip-hop of the 90s (Notorious B.I.G., Slick Rick), as well as politicians (Rudy Giuliani, Bill DeBlasio), Yankees players (Derek Jeter, A Rod), and current Bronx royalty (Desus & Mero, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).
These visuals served as an exhausting nod to the city of New York; equal parts inside joke and earnest tribute. I found myself struck upon seeing The Loft’s David Mancuso and Paradise Garage’s Larry Levan, a fitting testament to the influence this city’s dance music pioneers have had on Aphex himself.
Well known for his labyrinthian discography and prodigious hardware mastery, surely Aphex Twin could easily fill an entire night with his own material, both released and unreleased. However, James’ recent sets have been defined by deep curation and passionate selection. To the fervent interest of some and flimsy derision of others, Aphex Twin builds his sets from a hearty mix of original material intertwined with a good amount of expertly selected cuts from a slew of rising young club producers, many of whom he has influenced tremendously.
There’s something definitively demystifying about this massively successful and infamously abstruse artist cueing up a track like Create a Channel, a live coded experimental jam producer Renick Bell threw up on SoundCloud last month with just 600 plays at the time Aphex played it. While ageing rock stars’ performance talents inevitably decline alongside their physical body, a DJ’s skill lies first and foremost in their mind; a reality that offers the rare opportunity for DJs to maintain a level of quality well into old age. By peppering his set with the Finnish techno of Aleksi Perälä, the dissolved French filter house experiments of Sunareht, and a slew of other sounds of the modern underground, Aphex proved his eye is firmly on the ball.