AFX – Hangable Auto Bulb

This release is barely over half an hour but is essential mid-period Aphex, catching that transition from the analogue sound of I Care Because You Do to the hyper-manipulated beats of Come to Daddy and Drukqs

Opening track, Children Talking, is the classic Aphex juxtaposition of silliness with darkness, innocence and malevolence. The old sample of some BBC interviewer amused by some Northern child’s dislike of mashed potatoes, which starts off normal and gradually becomes more distorted, stretched, warped, sped up and slowed down as the track progresses, from the initial military tattoo-like drum roll, shortly joined by a stop-start bass drum, the track builds in intensity until around the two minute mark when it’s throbbing along at a tempo halfway between techno and jungle. After this Aphex starts having some fun with the beat, which is eventually joined by an eerie melody of sorts. The penultimate portion of the track, from 4:17, is not dissimilar to Logan Rock Witch, which I find to be one of the queasiest of Aphex’s tracks – sitting in that territory between playful and sinister, that half memory of something that scared you as a child and lurks in the hinterland of your psyche. It’s quite a journey from start to finish and that’s just track one.

Mashed potatoes

It could be easy to say this for lots of releases but the musical style on this EP is so distinctive and idiosyncratic it could almost be its own genre. The drum rolls and cavernous lurching bass is reminiscent of jungle, and this came out when jungle was at its creative peak – but the tempo sits just below, and there is none of bad-boy swing of jungle in the rat-ta-tat percussion – which frequently sounds like a stick being dragged along a row of railings. This sound is taken to its logical conclusion on track two, Hangable Auto Bulb, which at times sound like you’re trapped in a giant tube of balls rolling down an endless staircase. 

Track three, Laughable Butane Bob is jollier – Aphex still takes the beat for a walk now and then, but then brings it back with a speedy, buzzy melody, that opens out into a real euphoric breakdown around the two minute mark, to be carried away by a titanic drum roll that builds and crashes over itself like waves on a shore. 

Although at first listening it seems to be all about the beats, and playing with percussive sounds, this release is full of beautiful examples of Aphex’s melodies. The way they worm into the track, playing off one another – maybe I’ve just been listening to Aphex too long, but they really give each track a distinctive character and personality. Where track three is like an excited child, rushing around and bouncing off the walls, Custodian Discount, is introverted and suspicious, Wabby Legs, with its childlike voice la-la-ing deep in the mix is again sinister, but playful with it – the track itself is an exercise in play – playing with tempo, rhythm, cadence.

Shout out to closing track, Arched Maid Via RDJ, as one of my all time favourite Aphex tracks (and there’s a lot of competition). The breakdown from 1:40 induces a wonderful sense of cavernous space, with the beat swinging up and catching at the top and then plunging back down the other side, and then back up again, until it’s joined by what sounds like an electric guitar, aflame in a frantic extended solo that reaches an urgent, yearning crescendo over the course of the track. The pure emotion of life’s struggles, and not a lyric or human voice in sight.

Aphex Twin’s music may often be described as ‘otherworldly’, and indeed some of it is, or at least the sounds used don’t sound like anything from this world. But I find this release to be very ‘homely’, not in the sense it is warm or comforting, but something about the sounds, the melodies and overall vibe of most of the tracks just reminds me of…being at home, specifically as a young child, when you have no sense of whether it’s a week-day or weekend and every day is the same. No doubt this is partly due to the retro voice samples, but it’s also in the playfulness of the music, the melodies and sounds used to compose them – it feels like it comes from a place of familiarity…a grey rainy day in Britain and I’m indoors at home. Maybe that’s just me…

This release could easily be overshadowed by Aphex’s more high-profile releases from the same era: the Richard D James Album and Come to Daddy, but (in my opinion) it stands with his best work. I don’t have any privileged knowledge of his creative process at the time, or even how far apart all the tracks were made (he does have a habit of including tracks on new releases that were recorded years earlier), but this record sounds to me like someone not only at the height of their creative powers, but also revelling in experimenting: in the technology used to create the music and the direction each track takes. It is creativity, pure and unbounded, and free from any signifiers of genre, fashion or trend – no amens, no whistles, no hip-hop samples – which is why it retains the timeless quality of childhood memories.

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