In celebration of Drukqs, Aphex Twin’s most divisive and misunderstood statement
From an artist who rose to infamy by confounding expectation, Drukqs has some tough competition as Richard D. James’ most divisive move. There are plenty of fables about his contrary exploits over the years – DJing with sandpaper at raves, enraging Björk concert-goers by playing a warm up set of white noise as DJ Smojphace, to name but a few. His fifth album as Aphex Twin, Drukqs, is more complicated because of where it appears in his career arc, and how it was received when it landed. Considering the adulation with which new Aphex releases are largely greeted now, it’s quite comical reflecting on the widespread indignation amongst music critics, whose primary criticism seemed to be that James had delivered something reminiscent of previous releases, rather than some bold new mode of electronic expression.
You can understand their frustration in some ways – the year was 2001, and electronic music was catching its breath from the heady rush of the 90s, where new styles seemed to manifest on a weekly basis. Years later, Simon Reynolds described Drukqs as “reflecting the sputtering twilight of late 90s ideas.” Anyone who had been following Aphex Twin from the early rave igniters like Digeridoo through two seminal volumes of Selected Ambient Works and still unparalleled albums like …I Care Because You Do would be used to having their preconceptions slapped out from under their noses, whether it was James doing the slapping or another boundary-testing knob twiddler from the era.
“This album charts familiar Aphex territory, surveying styles he’s plied on previous records, rather than suggesting new directions,” lamented Malcolm Seymour III for Pitchfork. What seems funny about this criticism with hindsight of 17 years is just how unconventional Drukqs sounds. Certainly, you can hear elements of Aphex past embedded in the tracks – hardly a controversial move from any artist – but it feels far from a repetition. The frenzied programming workouts like Vordhosbn, Omgyjya-Switch7 and Cock/Ver10 call to mind the quick and nimble sequencing on Richard D. James Album, but melodically the playful N64-environ tunes have been replaced with the strangely stirring microtonal scales that show James at his compositional best. The beats themselves surpass grating glitchiness and show off a plethora of percussive hits.
“You can hear elements of Aphex past embedded in the tracks – hardly a controversial move from any artist – but it feels far from a repetition”
Unsettling tonal studies like Gwely Mernans and Gwarek2 could have fed into a Selected Ambient Works Volume III, but their sound palette feels like a logical step on from the minimalist drones and overtones of Volume II. Meanwhile the abundant prepared piano pieces and computer-controlled electro acoustics marked just the new Aphex territory critics were bemoaning the lack of. Avril 14th has since gone on to become one of James’ most treasured, not to mention licensed, compositions – an achingly beautiful piano soliloquy that placed his musical chops front and centre without interference from the machines.
The other primary complaint about Drukqs was its length and flow – two discs totalling 30 tracks, veering from extended beat-driven productions to acoustic instrumentation, swinging by answer machine ephemera and strange field recordings, one track after the other. Sub-30-second darts like Aussois and Bit 4 were particularly unwelcome by reviewers, as if their presence was a cruel ruse to add value to the release by sheer number of tracks. It’s entirely subjective of course, but from the first time I heard the delicate mechanical chimes of Jynweythek lead into the mind, heart and face-melting arrangement of Vordhosbn, I was fully sold on the unpredictable thrill ride. Drukqs could have easily been condensed into a one disc affair centred around the rowdy acid tracks on the album, even with a few ambient extras thrown in for good measure, but where’s the fun in that? Hearing James pull your brain this way and that across the spectrum of his musical abilities is a visceral sensation that hasn’t dulled with time.
“Drukqs gave plenty of ammunition for criticism... In hindsight, it all seems so trite”
It’s also worth considering the culture of music criticism at the time Drukqs came out. James had a relatively clean sheet up to that point – no matter how much he baited his audience, larked about or simply made a racket, praise was foisted upon him by electronica disciples, but not even the acid jesus with a devilish grin was immune from the scythe of popular music reviews. This was a time of idols being built up over an album or two, only to be dragged back down when they’d outstayed their welcome. Think of the NME and their bipolar treatment of so many bands at the time. That kind of criticism did keep things dynamic – when magazines and radio were king, there was no immunity at the top of the pile for the old guard, especially in the British music press. Scores of online commentators now pine for the days of writers that actually criticise (read: slate) the music.
Drukqs gave plenty of ammunition for criticism. The skit tracks, the implied pomposity of classical musicianship, the fact this was the best he could come up with after an outrageous five year wait. In hindsight, it all seems so trite. True, James has gone on to deliver some astounding and increasingly focused bodies of work since, but Drukqs is a beautiful mess. Eight-minute stormer Mt Saint Michel + Saint Michaels Mount is a fine case in point – a breakneck acid behemoth that mutates between funky refrains, manic drum flurries, bass eruptions, strafing 303s and a haunting melodic line. It’s all over the place, and every bar of it is packed with excitement and emotion.
On a personal level, I’ve always felt the pinnacle of James’ work on Drukqs was the eternally gorgeous Meltphace 6, ironically titled given the simple elegance of its gossamer string tones. Harmonically, it shows off James’ approach to microtonal composition perfectly, sounding like nothing else and just a little off-key, and therein conjuring up those curious emotions few other artists manage to muster. The track also wields some deliciously crunchy breakbeats, a spine-tingling breakdown and the consummate lysergic dose of Aphex acid. It’s wild and perfect, and surmises the album as a whole – every inch the technological spectacle, but also vulnerable and in its flaws, inherently human.