With a flash of red light from the stage Aphex Twin (Richard D. James) begins his debut set at South East London’s mega-venue, Printworks. His first show in the capital in two years, we’re brought into his lair gently with the warm synth chords of his ambient work layered over one another and steady, foreboding kick tapping away, an omen of what is to come. As we progress into the next track, bursts of green illuminate the crowd, as we squeeze in tighter and tighter all around. Never before have the capabilities of Printworks’ light shows been so clear, with what seemed to be millions of lasers pouring out the stage, shooting straight over the crowd and striking the back wall, casting a net over the 6000-strong audience as the chaos continues to grow.
Aphex Twin’s track selection varies widely, with hypnotic vocal samples in a variety of foreign languages being played promptly within the first ten minutes, yet everything remains contained within a bubble of sinister acid house, uniting the set and maintaining the narrative. Rumbling bass, invasive, inventive percussion, angular melody lines, rapid repetition – all staples of the artist, soon became
staples of the set. As the screens began to fill with distortions of the crowd members, one woman notices she’s on air and pulls her sunglasses down with a smirk to the camera, the crowd roars. The Octagon Man’s ‘Free-er Than Free’ stands out as the track’s bass-heavy drone resounds every bar, again and again, reality seeming to fade further and further away. Stuttering is certainly a favourite of Richard D. James’ sonic aesthetics and towards his huge, yet rare, drops, the hiccupping of the tracks seems almost to be ripping the layers of sound to shreds. Blending into Shadows J’s ‘Hip This House’ brings some lighter harmonies and percussion at first, but it is not long before the chromaticism indicates that the theme of insanity is far from gone. The camera flicks around the crowd superimposing distorted Aphex faces onto each person it meets, his brand of dark humour remaining as apt as it has always been in a time where image in front of a camera seems more important than ever.
One of the standout tracks from the set comes in the form of ‘Yaaah’ by D-Shake. The staccato ostinato melody underneath alternating between two notes and, as ever, a thumping kick, has the entire press halls shaking. Blue lasers mark the section out visually, before red takes over and we descend into a section of industrial techno. A cacophonous wonderland, the stage explodes with flashes of strobes and the speakers erupt with explosions of noise, giving an almost tangible sense of synaesthesia as your brain attempts to separate all the information and stimuli it’s being overloaded with.
Soon we enter the first section of pure, unadulterated noise, taking a moment to lift out of dance rhythms and embody the overarching chaos of the set. It seems so far out of control, and yet casually Richard will introduce a new track right in the middle of the mayhem and demonstrate everything is perfectly under his composition. This tone continues throughout the set, subtly growing darker and darker until we reach ‘Disposable Killer’ by Stanislav Tolkachev. With a melody so pointed your hair stands on end, the pits of hell were now on display in the best possible way. Distorted Aphex Twin faces begin to make their way onto a hilarious selection of public figures, from Mr Blobby to Jeremy Kyle, but soon the choice of celebrities become more and more serious, with Boris Johnson featuring amongst other notable politicians. The Queen makes an appearance before other royalty from the ages follow, the disfigurement parodying their existence, accompanied by the writing ‘Umil 25-01’, begging you to question the farce of ‘fame and fortune’ in the modern world.
Eventually, silence falls. White lasers give a momentary sense of finality, but the pandemonium quickly ensues once more as ‘Stone in Focus’ comes in. Like a gracious wren carefully gliding down to the ground, as it makes its descent the chaos fades. It’s a beautiful and breath-taking moment, the gorgeous chords enwrapping you in their dreamlike vibrations. One might assume that this would be Richard D. James drawing his epic performance to a close, but before you know it, we enter a surprise jungle section as ‘Black’ by DJ SS abruptly slides in. It’s almost hard to believe as samples of the chorus of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ echo eerily over the top of this. The BPM climbs higher and higher bringing a new kind of turmoil, so different to the acid house from earlier in the set. It’s not sinister, dark and threatening, but it remains a sensory assault on all sides. As we approach the end, we have another noise section to round it off, more intense than ever, and as the electronic blares fall into a single droning buzz, suddenly, it’s over.
Aphex Twin’s style from set to set is known to vary widely and witnessing this collage of sounds live is an experience quite like no other. The story told through the selection of music manages to stay coherent despite the turbulent waters through which he navigates, resulting in some of the most inventive explorations of techno, acid house and jungle you’ll ever see. Throw your expectations aside, leave at home what you know about music, and absorb the unique genius of Richard D. James.
Written by Louis Danckwerts
Edited by Alexander Szoryn
Photos courtsey of Andrew Whitton (@andrewwhitton)