There is no better way to start my reviews section than with my “lights on” moment. The moment when you realise you have heard something that you will revisit again and again. This album will always sit in my favourites list.
Selected Ambient Works, Vol.II is a 23 track offering from Aphex Twin (Richard D. James) and was his second full studio album. During these 23 untitled tracks James takes us on an unsettling journey which he once described as “like standing in a power station on acid”.
The opening track has a fairly uplifting and calming quality to it. with vocal samples that flutter back and forth between the ears and some gentle looping synth pads accompanying them. It sounds almost playful and this is felt even more when a gentle melody is introduced and repeated whilst the other elements of the track slowly fall away. The track ends on this melody alone.
The second track follows suit with another looping melody. This time sounding slightly less playful and accompanied by a quite, bit-crushed sounding beat that creeps into the mix and hisses a distortion into the distance. All this time the original melody continues, bouncing from left to right and then finally ending with a tail of reverb into silence.
Track three known by many online as “Rhubarb” is where James changes the vibe and ups the atmosphere a little. A sombre pad starts to play alone which soon gets thickened by a layer of sub bass. The pads then get brighter and thicker still, almost as if they are slowly growing moss over time. The same structure continues for a good three minutes and does not get old. Out of nowhere a subtle heart breaking synth is introduced adding a sense of forgotten euphoria and despair to this quite wonderful piece of music. This is lifted briefly around the six minute mark and the mood shifts slightly to one of hope but slowly decays away from the listener before we can gain any sense of happiness from this track.
Track four is a menacing and haunting affair. Deep beating hand drums trigger the soundtrack to an invasion of other worldly beings. Their threat made all the more terrifying by the voices of a deranged, alien choir humming insidiously while terror looms over the listener. This is the first track on the album where drums have been a major focus and it works well, they don’t intrude of distract the listener, they build suspense and fear.
Track five begins with another looping vocal sample. Like the previous track the mood is still quite ominous, but with a slightly playful edge to it. Is James teasing us? Daring us to play these last two tracks in settings that make us feel uncomfortable? I’ve certainly turned this track off before when I’ve been the last one left at work on a late shift. All the time this sample is repeated. James backs it with some heavily delayed percussion which again manages to remain subtle, with the voice at the forefront. Luckily James ends our sense of unease relatively quickly as the track is one of the shorter offerings on the album at 03:31 running time.
Six revisits the more playful side of the earlier tracks on the album with a looping synth melody that runs for a whopping 08:51. Variation is sparse but comes in the form of five bright droplets of sound which scale down slowly giving the listener the feeling of Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Unfortunately for me this fall continues for a little to long and I start to lose interest at around six minutes into the track.
Track seven and James introduces some bold percussion to the album which reminds me of the soundtrack to an ancient PC game I owned called Evolva. This level of nostalgia is enough for me to enjoy the track, but then some nervous sounding keys play timidly in the background, and a shimmering synth pad in my right ear creeps into mix. Now I really am brought back into my childhood gaming days. Visions of exploring dangerous and brightly coloured alien jungles spring to mind. A thick, damp fog limits what I can see and I really don’t know what I could discover next.
Track eight follows suit with more bold percussion, this time the tempo is increased and a more tribal, primitive beat is introduced. It feels slightly out of place but not enough to spoil the narrative built in the last seven tracks. The synth lines groove and are accompanied by a dial tone like sound, playing a jingle that is really quite pleasing on the ears and fun. It’s enough to move to and the introduction of a rather harsh sounding hi hat could tempt your head into bobbing. It is not what I would class as ambient track. Maybe that’s the point, it serves as a nice break and gives you time to prepare for the next unsettling tracks that are sure to follow.
Nine does not disappoint. Sounding more like something from a Ridley Scott film, it has an edge of curiosity and discovery about it. It is cold and foreboding. A low, throbbing, muddy synth is paired with a wining string like sound that induces visions of steely mining vessels, crawling through the most isolated areas of deep space. This track is an insight into the minds of the paranoid, the sleep deprived and the anxious and it throws you back into the deep end of James’ horror story.
Track ten revisits the more playful style of the first two tracks. Another looping melody of familiar sounding synths play accompanied by a small glitch of static and then a high pitched ringing. The more you listen, the more you can hear James’ subtle automations of the melody. It gradually brightens and thickens with the help of some delay, giving the track a little more depth. The result is slightly underwhelming though, it’s as if I am stuck in a waiting room whilst the rest of the album is trying to buffer. The track isn’t bad it just doesn’t have the same atmospheric depth as others.
The eleventh track is possibly the most out of place track on the album, However this is no bad thing. it’s very different from what we have heard before. It’s sample heavy, with wind chimes clanging brightly from side to side, pitch shifted vocals and a low rumbling noise that sparks imagery of heavy machinery and generators to mind. It’s a nice change and certainly keeps the brain interested and engaged.
Track twelve begins with a wooden metronome sound looping. It is cold and is quickly joined by a distorted noise sounding like something off of a submarine. This cold, mechanical atmosphere is then attacked by some truly heartfelt synth pads reminiscent of track three. It’s relaxing, comforting and actually quite sad at the same time, a ray of warm light shining in a cold wasteland. I can’t help but feel some sort of beautiful loss when I here this track. I feel deflated when it fades out, I want more, a deeper insight into the more emotional side of James’ work and I want to know what inspires pieces like these.
On track thirteen James elevates the listener into a higher state. A pulsating hum massages the brain and ethereal vocals gently sweep from side to side. At one point I think I can hear part of the track clip in my left headphone, but it doesn’t bother me. The sound is weightless, pure and clean. Pure relaxation and calm. James takes us on a journey through a lucid dream thick with ecstasy. It would be perfect to fall asleep to if I wasn’t enjoying it so much. I’m reminded of aspects of Brian Eno’s ‘Apollo’ album and how I felt when I first heard ‘An Ending’.
Fourteen is a cruel juxtaposition, a frantic beat begins that moves you from lucid dream to night terror within seconds. It’s catchy, moody and slightly industrial in sound. It is the sonic manifestation of panic. There is a primal and animalistic edge to this track that really makes me tick. It could easily be the soundtrack to a chase sequence in a Sci-fi thriller. It would be nowhere near as effective if the album was played on shuffle.
Track fifteen sounds like a polar exhibition gone wrong. A wall of icy wind cuts through you chilling you to the bone. There’s also a sense of depth and space as these noises are slowly passed through low pass filters and smudged out of view. The whirring of an intoxicated super computer jumps into the mix. Burping and gargling code into your ears resulting in a truly bewildering sound. This track isn’t particularly memorable, however it grabs your attention in the moment and is certainly the most harsh thing you will hear on the album.
Track sixteen sheds a bright, bubbling and positive light on the previous two tracks. It’s fun, bouncy and pleasing on the ear. It is also the shortest track on the album clocking in at 02:05 It’s as if James got half way through producing this piece and decided it was just a little too uplifting to last any longer.
On track seventeen James revisits the more primitive style. We are greeted by waving flutes, the psychedelic sound of an ayahuasca ceremony awaits and the mysterious rolling of hand drums beckon us closer. The beat develops slightly with the introduction of Aztec sounding tambourines that snap at your ears. It’s like being lost in a rich and unforgiving audio jungle, and just as you feel as if you are about to get totally lost, the melody shifts. James adds some high pitched chirping noises that ring loud and echo away back through the trees. You feel like you are about to discover an ancient and powerful artefact, there’s a sense of adventure and mystery. Something needs to be discovered.
Track eighteen is a percussion heavy head bobber. Obnoxious, saturated kicks stomp through the mix and distort ever so slightly in your ears. James weaves lo-fi sounding snares between each kick. The resulting beat sounds fairly complex and is the driving force behind the track. The gaps are filled with pleasant synths that ring optimistically back and forth creating a simplistic melody that is charming and relaxing. There are a few warm sounding pads that take over from this melody around half way through to give our ears a break. The more you listen to the percussion, the more alive it sounds, it’s like a group of elephants shuffling into a golden sunset. This is a great moment on this record and I cant help but smile when I hear it.
On track nineteen James manages to flip the style again. high pitched, shining pads ring elegantly into your ears. They have a slight touch of sadness to them which makes the resulting sounds even more evocative. The pads sound very similar to those used in the third track, but when the result is so good, who cares? The sounds bleed together in a pool of glossy, warm light. It’s like watching the sun set on one of the last days of summer, and when the track fades out you are left wanting to stay in that moment forever.
Track twenty is another more sample based production. Humming machines and reverberating voices resonate through sheets of distortion. It sounds like James has used field recordings from a large train station or airport and added just the right amount of reverb and delay to make you feel like you have been transported into an asylum for the criminally insane. It’s incredibly atmospheric, indistinguishable voices chatter to you and ghostly wails are summoned from the dark, leaving you with feelings of dread and flirting with the supernatural. James displays his versatility on this track and is able to build a cold, calculating audio nightmare to torment you with.
On track twenty one your ears will be challenged. You are sent on a one way journey into a black hole, modulated, growling synthesis gnaws at your brain and ugly synth pads bend and warp into oblivion. It is not comfortable listening and could be thought of as offensive with a 07:30 run time. It filters outwards briefly and then plunges you back into a swirling void. Towards the end of the track I can hear the engines of old war planes groaning through the noise but these soon fade out into darkness.
Track twenty two is the most bewildering on the record. A simple melody loops in one ear and in the other the guttural sounds of large animals bubble coarsely away. Vocal samples are the introduced, a demented laughter mocks you whilst you listen. The sample is slowed down and begins to sound more like crying. I know I shouldn’t like this track, but there is something about it that makes me smile. It’s like James is playing a joke on us, it’s the longest track as well which makes this seem even more likely. Sometimes you will hear alien voices in conversation in your right ear and the echo of the laughing sample washing away into vocoded whispering. Occasionally keys played in a lower octave add intensity to the mood but never amount to anything. The laughter continues and James waves his middle fingers right in front of our faces. The melody begins to warp out of tune towards the end of the track and then slows to a finish.
The final track begins with synthesised strings sweeping through our ear canals, wooden percussion echoes away into deep space. James paints pictures of grand, interstellar voyages. It sounds retro, epic and mysterious, like we have set foot on a newly discovered planet in the dead of night. Nostalgic thoughts of playing old Star Trek video games are born in my mind. It’s a good track to finish on, it sounds as if something wonderful is about to be discovered and leaves you wanting more.
The journey through James’ power station ends and I’m left feeling vulnerable, haunted and totally relaxed all at the same time. There are a few dodgy moments on this album but they are quickly overshadowed by the raw atmospheric bliss that some tracks create. James has created a masterpiece in ambient mind games that will keep me flickering between states of euphoria and paranoia for a long time to come.
Written by Andrew Everington – 17/03/2017