Release Date: Jul 8, 2016
Record label: Warp
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock
Aphex Twin has always contained multitudes, and in the two years since Richard D. James returned from his extended hiatus, we have been reminded not only how many different facets he has, but also how good he is at compartmentalizing them. Each of his last three releases has shone the spotlight on a different aspect of his identity. Syro, his comeback album, was a bold, virtuosic, big-tent statement in the vein of I Care Because You Do and the Richard D.
Aphex Twin (the alias of Richard D James) is a genius of drum programming and tone colour, and he’s made some of the most evocative albums ever. His best albums of the 1990s harnessed the available technologies into music that gets better with age (rather than ever sounds dated). And what’s most surprising is that he’s been so unanimously accepted into the rock[-based] canon.
Of course Richard D. James would put together a record of sub-120 BPM tracks and call it Cheetah. But in fact, the title is a reference to a rare, discontinued digital synth from the early '90s.
Few artists exist in a cloak of enigma like Richard D. James. He hides behind aliases. He often eschews traditional song titles in favor of numeric codes. His music, meanwhile, crisscrosses the electronic music gamut so gamely that calling his music “electronic” almost feels like a reductive ….
The past two years has seen pioneering electronica, drill and bass, ambient et al influencer Aphex Twin return to the music releasing fold after years of near silence. We still don't know for sure what has prompted the return to action, but maybe the bigger question should be what lead to the years of inaction in the first place. New mini album Cheetah is the follow-up to last year's Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments "outtakes" record, itself a bunch of short tunes that never made it onto 2014's maddening, flexible beat giver and semi concept LP Syro.
At its essence, the act of record-reviewing becomes sort of a pass-fail proposition: If anyone’s reading, they mostly just want to know if they should check an album out or not. It’s not all lexical-cultural fun and games when an artist isn’t Kanye West with foibles-within-foibles to parse out or pun on. Sometimes we really are just weighing “CIRCLONT6A [141.98] [syrobonkus mix]” against “xmas_EVET10  [thanaton3 mix].” But it’s our job to come up with new ways to write about an all-acid-synth art object called Analord 6 without repeating things you already used up on Analord 4.
On a lot of Aphex Twin's previous EPs, the material besides the lead-off track has been fairly forgettable: "73-yips" from the On EP isn't going down in history, nor is "Pancake Lizard" from Donkey Rhubarb, or Windowlicker's "Nannou." This isn't to say that they're poor songs, but they boast very different flavour from the release's title tracks, and are generally upstaged by them. In this respect, Cheetah breaks the pattern.The hugely differing styles between tracks have been replaced with a uniform sound throughout, so that it feels like a real body of work, as opposed to a random selection of tunes. That's the good news.
Similar to the Analord EP series, 2016's Cheetah contains some of Richard D. James' most stripped-down techno tracks. Nearly everything here sticks to a steady midtempo, and the tracks generally take their time developing, subtly adding new elements rather than excitedly jumping from one point to another. Other than the CD bonus track (remember those?) "2X202-ST5," all of the tracks feature some permutation of either "CHEETAH" or "CIRKLON" in the title, and while they're basic enough on the surface to be variations on the same themes, there's enough going on to separate the compositions.
I first heard Cheetah at this year’s NAMM convention in Nashville. I hadn’t seen the announcement of a “product demonstration” on Aphex Twin’s social media accounts beforehand, so I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the booth at first. Tucked away into the back corner of the convention center, Warp’s little island of visual sterility clashed with the loud, in-your-face product displays and demos surrounding it.