It's pretty easy to hate on the follow-up to Aphex Twin's 2014 masterpiece 'SYRO' at first glance. Compiled of often-jarring, disjointed instruments - including one singular snare roll that speeds up and slows down, a nine second-long track, and the fact that the whole thing clocks in at just under half an hour - 'Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt2' has none of the polished, restless shapeshifting raviness or danceability of 'SYRO'.
But anyone who was naïvely expecting a carbon copy of that album deserves to be disappointed (Aphex even stated in a Pitchfork interview that 'SYRO' was "the end of an era"( and the clue is in the name - the EP does what it says on the tin (and in Beastie Boys-fashion, Aphex heads straight for Part 2). Though it's something that's been done before - á la the 'musical automata' of Pierre Bastien's Meccano orchestra, released on Rephlex - it's, quite simply, a collection of acoustic instruments played by robots and controlled by Richard D. James.
When Squarepusher released 'Music For Robots' in 2014, hiring an legion of Japanese robots to perform his jazz compositions, the result was - ironically - some of the warmest, most human work Tom Jenkinson's produced to date. But 'CCAI' doesn't have this same effect - the intergalactic hip-hop of 'diskhat1', 'hat 2b 2012b' and 'diskhat2' has a clunking, macho quality that does feel mechanical in its very essence; moody, metallic loops make up closing cut 'hat5c 0001 rec-4' which chugs away and builds hypnotically. Yet the whole EP doesn't boast rigidity throughout: funky breaks and jazzy piano noodling can be found between the mechanised loops. There's also a playfulness, Trent Reznor-style, with the use of the instruments themselves - low piano keys often designate rhythm while twinkly, fresher tones offer melody.
But the most breathtaking, emotive moments come in the delicate piano solos, with 'piano un1 arpej' and 'piano un10 it happened' both boasting an 'Aisatsana'-like love song quality - perhaps'SYRO' wasn't the "end of an era", then? What's interesting is how such an ancient instrument can sound so revolutionary when surrounded in loops played by machines.
If you were to align it with any of Aphex Twin's past work it'd have to be 'Drukqs', but it also sounds like nothing he's ever done before. The sound engineering is the really interesting part of this extended play - it's not about making the robots feel human, but feeling as though you're in the room with them, whirring about around you. On 'DISKPREPT1', between piano strokes, you can even hear what sounds like a child talking in the next room.
After such a long break between official studio albums from the annointed one, it's nice to see that he's still shaking things up - not just giving us what we want.
Words: Felicity Martin
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