‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ wasn’t the first Aphex Twin release by a long margin, but it was certainly the record that put him on the map with a wider group of listeners than those that were familiar with his eclectic ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ and brusque ‘Digeridoo’ 12”s.
It was a respectable, accessible release issued in a year when electronica was obsessed with the harshest edges of hardcore – fat, speaker-bothering sub-bass, aggressive over-accelerated breakbeats and headcleaning hoover noises that now sound horrendously contrived and simplistic, but which at the time were the vital, vibrant sound of hedonistic urban rebellion.
But not ‘Selected Ambient Works’. For a start it was loaded with actual, considered melodies and a real consciousness about how it sounded; unlike hardcore, whose tracks felt like a couple of fun ideas strung out by noise, repetition and dark humour, pieces like ‘Tha’ felt almost classically-appointed by comparison – something vaguely ironic given that, at various points in his career, Richard D. James has done everything that hardcore did (and some) almost to the point of incessant self-parody. The closest that this album gets to the hardcore tradition would be the cheeky sample of Gene Wilder’s inestimable Willy Wonka on ‘We Are The Music Makers’.
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Shrouded in reverb, not afraid to throw in skeletal electro rhythms, a muted techno pulse, or detuned industrial pre-drill ‘n’ bass anti-beat, this was ultra-hypnotic music, connected both to Eno’s self-generative driftwork and artists like The Orb’s recontextualising of club music for more chilled-out environments, and yet utterly of itself. During rare interviews, James acted ignorant of anything that had gone before, whether it was classical minimalism or any of his electronic forebears or contemporaries, and yet his music here felt like it was connected to so many points – without once sounding like a pastiche – that it was impossible to take the notion of this music forming in a stylistic vacuum seriously.
Similarly, it was hard to comprehend that some of this music could have been conceived of in the mid-80s, a time when a glossy 12” extended mix of the Pet Shop Boys was most people’s idea of dance music. You wanted to believe that this album represented an unearthed body of work that turned your notions of the key points along electronica’s continuum on its head; after all, the title suggested that some of this music was formed concurrently with, or even before Chicago house, Detroit techno, NY electro or anything emerging in the 1980s dance music melting point.
Something about it felt strangely revisionist on the part of its compiler and just a little too convenient. James himself was non-committal on the conceit, like he has been on most of the mythology that has sprung up around him over the years.
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Mystique aside, ‘Selected Ambient Works’ has stood the test of time remarkably well, despite being created by an artist whose sheer incessant volume of work should by rights have produced some dross along the way. Each of the pieces here is distinctive, yet distinctively Aphex in its outlook, holding clues to future directions (e.g. the textural and melodic similarities between ‘Heliosphan’ and the later ‘On’) yet suggesting he was capable of moving in whichever idiosyncratic direction he wanted to, unheeded, with or without copious aliases, record labels or anything resembling convention.
Calling anything ‘perfect’ is a fool’s errand of the highest order, but in electronica terms, ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ is just that, perhaps annoyingly so. There was a time when this writer would listen to this album on repeat so often and so deeply that I was convinced, returning to it as I am now after maybe a decade or more, that it would somehow reveal itself to be as ephemeral as the fabled emperor’s new wardrobe.
If anything, this album makes more sense – and has more coherence – today than it did back when it was released. Now it slots comfortably into a canon of music that we today call modern classical, populated by artists like Max Richter and Dustin O’Halloran, whereas back in 1992 it stood apart from pretty much everything else, even Warp’s emerging Artificial Intelligence series – and yet it still appealed to knowing swathes of discerning electronica fans.
We're no closer today in our efforts to understand what makes Richard D. James tick than we ever were, and ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ – contrived backstory or otherwise – remains an enduring testament to a curious, ever-illusive talent.
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Words: Mat Smith // MJASmith