Pendennis Castle keep near Falmouth, Cornwall, c 2002
Richard David James, better known as Aphex Twin, has been described by MOJO
magazine as “the Mozart of techno.” This title may be misleading because James’ music is not strictly techno, although inspired by the likes of Derrick May. James himself scorns the thought of so-called “Intelligent” Dance Music. But, like Mozart, his
intelligence is undeniable. His music has been thought to fall within an umbrella-genre of music called IDM, a cross-pollination of styles ranging from classical to all the bizarre sub-genres of electronica. It is James’ own fault that such a broad description is needed to classify his work; his eclecticism is a big part of what makes him such an original artist (although he claimed in a Guardian
interview that it is simply due to "a low boredom threshold").
Mozart could not claim to have such modest roots; James hails unexpectedly from Cornwall. The Cornish are culturally separate from their English neighbours as they belong to the group of Celtic Nations (alongside Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Brittany, and the Isle of Man). This cultural influence is particularly obvious in James’ literally self-titled Richard D. James Album
(1996), which is currently number 17 on Rolling Stone
’s “The 30 Greatest EDM Albums of All Time.”
Carnglaze Caverns, Cornwall
(thanks Derek Hawkins)
Owing to his heritage, some of the songs on this album are named after places in Cornwall (“Carn Marth” and “Logan Rock Witch”), but the most direct reference to Cornwall is the song “Cornish Acid.” Acid, in this case, is not the hallucinogen, but a popular sound in EDM that could be produced only by a Roland synthesizer TB-303, which James uses in this song. The “acid” sound is created by tweaking the instrument’s many parameters that affect and distort the sound in various interesting ways.
The song name is presumably meant to be equivocal, but James told the Guardian
that he never composes when intoxicated: “Whenever I have been, it's always been totally rubbish. It's a real disciplined thing, making music. When you're tripping, you're just fucked. You could never get it together to make a track. When I'm stoned, I go to bed."
Like Cornwall, the Richard D. James Album
is fundamentally related to James’ identity as a musician. His music is often wistful in tone, much like the folk-music of the Cornish, which seems to be the only influence not
included in his genre description. But it is undeniably there beneath the unpredictable and complicated breakbeats, not only through the melancholic feel, the simple and spacious folk-like melodies, but also in the pastoral images his music is capable of evoking (in tracks like “4” for example).
The melancholia in this album is not simply angst, although drug allusions and unkempt appearance may paint a different picture of the man. In an MTV interview after the release in 1996, James explained to Simone Angel that the album title was a tribute to his younger brother, who died at birth. “I’ve always felt guilty because my mum named me after him after he died, cos’ she didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that he had died. So I always felt guilty that I had nicked his identity.” Track 6, “To Cure a Weakling Child,” may be a direct reference to this sad event.
Tragic and inspired, few can deny that whatever he has taken in this world, Richard D. James has given electro the heart and soul many doubted it could possess, and put Cornwall on the map in the process.
~ Douglas MacCutcheon