Whenever anyone mentions the music of Richard D James, you have to ask which one? James is one of the most prolific of the current crop of electronic artist, recording under no less than 9 aliases including Aphex Twin, AFX and Polygon Window. Being at it since the ’80s makes him an elder in the world of electronic artists.
James’ career is marked by many stylistic changes that run from the beautiful calm of 1994’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II to the disjointed hyper rhythems of 2001’s Drukqs.
Over time I’ve come to think of Aphex Twin (or Richard D. James) as the William DeKooning of music. After hearing a rash of angry, harsh and spastic albums, I found myself turning to earlier more melodic work. That kind of closed minded fear of musical abstract expressionism meant that I would miss out on a lot of music, all of it being written, recorded and released at a pace that would have made Prince proud.
More recently, the melodies in James’ earlier work have made a suprising return. Like an abstract experimental artist becoming a impressionist, 2016’s Cheetah is a stab at the mainstream. But like any Aphex Twin branded album it’s anything but conventional. Having said that, Cheetah comes across as sounding almost like conventional dance music – or as close to it that a Aphex Twin album could get. The excellent Syro LP from two years earlier hinted at the retro direction of James’ work. More importantly it pointed to songs that were less frantic with more structure which informs Cheetah.
Cheetah adds to the foundation created by Syro by adding more historical references like hints of Kraftwerk. It’s first single “Cheetaht2” helped the EP become a dance hit, landing it at the top of the charts. James enlisted Ryan Wyer, a 12 year old, to direct music video for another of Cheetah’s hits “CIRKLON3 [ Колхозная mix ]”.
Along with Syro, James’ renewed interest strong melodies is vindicated by higher profile commercial success. The throw back charm is achieved via conceptual inspiration by a classic British electronics company Cheetah, who’s line of who’s line of synthizers offered a distinctive sound. Much of that sound is reproduced by tracks named for various Cheetah gear, giving it a further retro futurist vibe.
Think bits of Kraftwerk and Boards of Canada and you get the layered and very structured “Cheetaht7b” with it’s electronic bass styled keyboards. Other tracks have a near soundtrack feel to them like the super short “Cheeta2ms800”. Overall the lightly layered, stripped down nature of the songs is refreshing to hear from someone like James who’s made a career out of crazy spastic compositions. Cheetah manages to get funky with even with more conventional dance floor appeal thanks to the opening track “Cheetaht2 and “Cirklon3”.
James releases so many albums, EP and singles in any given year under any one of 9 alises, that its difficult to keep up with him if you’re not a hardcore fan. With more releases like “Cheetah” its likely that new and older casual fans like myself who fell for earlier melodies will want to keep up with whatever Richard D. James is up to.