It's a little hard to believe that Aphex Twin's Hangable Auto Bulb EPs are now ten years old. These two twelve-inch vinyl singles were very obscure when they first came out; only three hundred copies were pressed, and few people got a chance to hear the music. But now, in retrospect it's clear that they were undoubtedly a turning point in AFX's career, for better or for worse. Almost everything he recorded after this, all the way through 2001, is a variation on the style of Hangable Auto Bulb. Now Warp has reissued both EPs on one disc, and it's time to give them another look, ten years since.
For all its obscurity, though, Hangable Auto Bulb started one big trend. This is a jungle album. It might not be the first record to ever use that style, but that doesn't matter, because Richard D. James second-guessed all the hype that would build up around jungle, put his own face on it, and thus placed himself right at the front of all the changing fashions of electronica just as they were about to start moving even more frenetically. With his high profile and critical reputation, AFX legitimized the style and gave it a voice, and thus opened the way for any number of lesser musicians to find success in that brief period of time.
I describe this somewhat grudgingly, because jungle does not appeal to me personally so much, and because the advent of jungle quashed a number of other developments in electronic music that I liked more, like the danceable, melodic style of Aphex Twin's own first album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. After Hangable Auto Bulb, Aphex Twin's music changed for good. He became so enamoured of the spastic, sped-up, seemingly arrhythmic percussion style of jungle that he recorded almost nothing different in the next six years. Inevitably, he worked this idea into a dead end, and pretended to retire in 2001.
So, for me, the biggest surprise when I listened to this reissue was how good the music was. I didn't really like it when I had first heard it, a long time ago. Now, I see that it's aged very well, and the sound seems much cleaner and less abrasive than the way I remember it. Maybe the passage of time favours Aphex Twin; once the trends have passed and the imitators have disappeared, his originality shines all the brighter.
Or maybe it's just because he knew when to stop, at thirty-three minutes. A longer album in this style would have been difficult to sit through; the style would have become repetitive and grating. This EP, on the other hand, is both concise and focused.
Then there's the matter of those sped-up percussion tracks. Their speed varies wildly; they seem more or less steady one moment, only to break out in violent bursts the next; they crash chaotically during breaks in the music. But they're not arrhythmic. For instance, there's a part on "Wabby Legs" when, even as the drums appear to flail around in a random fashion, another drum track is actually keeping time. It's like a performance by a really proficient drummer, who can add all kinds of impressive fills without breaking the rhythm.
Better yet, AFX didn't forget the melodies, either. In this regard, Hangable Auto Bulb is the best jungle album ever made. The lead in "Laughable Butane Bob" is just beautiful, all nervous and excited, and taking on a dreamier tone in the break. If Aphex Twin were to release a collection of non-album tracks, as I wish he would, this track would be a sure thing to include on it. "Wabby Legs" isn't bad either, and a couple of other tracks from the first single don't have pronounced melodies, but do use some calm bass and keyboards to punctuate the silence during breaks and provide contrast to the drums. And hey, although "Children Talking" is probably the weakest track on the CD, it does provide a bit of that good old Aphex Twin humour by means of a sample of a voice repeatedly intoning, "Mashed potatoes! Why do you hate mashed potatoes?"
The second single is much better than the first, though it contains only two songs. (Unfortunately, the tracklisting on the CD confuses them; "Every Day" is actually last, and "Arched Maid" just before it.) In "Every Day," a very pretty keyboard line provides the background for a story, of sorts: a woman's voice tells of how her husband constantly hectors her and demands that she fetch him things. The voice is obviously distorted, but there's something so disarming about its tone. When, the woman says, "Every day, things keep piling up over me," it doesn't sound like she's complaining, it sounds like she's basically a good-natured person who's doing her best to put up with this self-absorbed husband, but unable to deal with the strain. It's a surprisingly affectionate depiction, coming as it does from a man who isn't known for his compassion.
And "Arched Maid Via RDJ" easily equals any of Aphex Twin's best tracks. He breaks out the electric guitar, for the first and last time ever, and it is awesome. While the drums bang and clatter, he plays a long solo with a faraway, detached sound, like the kind of feeling one gets during solitary daydreams. I always liked this song, but it's even better than how I'd remembered it.
What else is there to say? If you're not familiar with Aphex Twin, his best album is still his first one. This CD, however, is a definitive portrayal of the second half of his career, and the three best tracks are as good as anything he's ever done. Devoted fans won't need my invocation to buy this album, but hopefully it will find a wider audience and inspire a new interest in AFX's accomplishments. But man, ten years...mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?