At times it’s difficult to classify the sound created by Richard D. James — better known as Aphex Twin — on his sophomore release, Selected Ambient Works Volume II, as music. Yes, there are moments of melody and occasionally a slight rhythm, but what are lacking are any familiar song structures — or titles, for that matter — to signify one movement to the next. This is complex, challenging and unsettling music, and it is quite frankly the most terrifying record in my collection.
Taking cues from the avant-garde ambient works of Fripp/Eno, John Cage and Tangerine Dream and fusing it with his own sense of space and dimension, James first came to prominence with his 1993 debut Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which John Bush of Allmusic described as “a watershed of ambient music.” The record is best described as minimalist, with most tracks only containing intricate drumbeats and layers of echoing synths. It set the framework and standard by which the genre was measured in that time period — and was followed up the next year by Volume II.
Volume II is a daunting two-disc collection, reportedly inspired by James’ lucid dreams and apparent synesthesia (which is probably what makes the record so frightening). The tracks shift between the transcendent and sinister, with only intermittent hints at what lies beneath. The absence of song titles (with the single exception of “Blue Calx”) also lends to the overall mystique of the record. Listeners were instead given diagrams with corresponding photographs and left to decipher and interpret the names.
The record begins with the blooming childlike sounds of “[Cliff].” Juxtaposed against a wash of dark chords, the track could be the background for a modern horror film. (In my research for this piece I discovered that it was actually used in the 2001 indie drama Manic, staring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Don Cheadle and Zooey Deschanel.) The menacing echo of “[Tree]” evokes the foreboding image of entry to a dark forest and the realization that you are not alone, and closes with a note so low that it’s felt more than heard. “[White Blur 1],” one of the shortest pieces on the record, features some of the only recognizable voices on the album, albeit distorted and sped up and buried beneath the sound of a wind chime.
Disc two begins innocuously enough, with “Blue Calx,” but it quickly returns to the darkest reaches of the human psyche with “[Parallel Stripes].” The sound of florescent industrial lights hangs in the background of the entire eight minutes, lending to its hypnotizing and almost maddening tone. It’s almost as if James is challenging you to listen to the entire eight minutes and not break. If “[Parallel Stripes]” is mesmerizing in its delivery, “[Grey Stripe]” represents easily the most terrorizing track of the collection. The dynamic attack of what can only be described as white noise seems to lurk quietly and lurch out for the quick scare.
James clearly revels in his eeriness and embodied it personally by appearing on multiple record covers, his face in an ever present evil smile and often superimposed on otherwise benign images. While none of these subsequent records contained the same scary material within, the collected works of Selected Ambient Works Volume II left more than enough of a mark.