Acoustic Sounds

Aphex Twin

Blackbox Life Recorder 21f



Blackbox Life Recorder 21f

Label: Warp Records

Produced By: Richard D. James

Engineered By: N/A

Mixed By: Richard D. James

Mastered By: Beau Thomas

Lacquers Cut By: Beau Thomas

By: Mark Dawes

September 24th, 2023



Aphex Twin's Latest EP Augments Your Reality

"Blackbox Life Recorder" has an AR App - but you need the vinyl to use it

There will be some Tracking Angle readers for whom Aphex Twin needs no introduction; and others will prefer not just an introduction, but a lengthy and detailed explanation. Explaining Aphex Twin is a very difficult notion. Genres are not sufficient to define his music, but electronic production is central to his modus operandi. If you enjoy the kind of splattering, gritty breakbeat riot represented by “Come To Daddy”, then you will know him well already. If you have become aware of nothing more than the harmonious, plangent piano of “Avril 14th” then you may imagine an oeuvre formed around new age pastoralism. There is no definitive method to categorise the work of Richard D. James. A brief summary of the facts (often disputed) may be the best place to begin.

Born in Ireland, raised in Cornwall, England, and educated in electronics, James has been listed amongst the most forward-thinking, enigmatic and inventive musicians of this century. From Acid House to Ambient, from Jungle freakouts to subtle piano compositions, from modular synths to machine-controlled acoustic instruments; Aphex Twin seems to encompass multiple contradictions. And yet, since he rarely makes conclusive statements to define himself, how can any of his musical handbrake turns or abrupt aesthetic shifts be contradictory? Restless in his experimentalism, uninterested in representing any cultural agenda, gleefully mischievous in confounding expectations, James must simply be considered an artist inhabiting a vast and intricate sonic landscape who refuses to exist within established boundaries.

James co-founded independent label Rephlex Records, recorded several albums for Warp Records, and is responsible for seminal electronic titles including “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” and “…I Care Because You Do”. If you have ever had a disturbing nightmare after visiting a record shop, you may have been confronted in your reverie by James’ twisted, grinning face from the cover of “The Richard D. James Album”. He simultaneously gives away his work on Soundcloud accounts while a giant blimp carrying his signature logo promotes his album “Syro” over central London.

I am now over 300 words into this article and some readers will wish to ditch the preamble and get to the review, and others will feel perplexed to still not know who or what Aphex Twin may be. For those in confusion, just listen. You may love or hate what you hear. You may stumble to reach the off button, horrified at the distorted sonic terrorism of “Vordhosbn”, or you may be instantly absorbed and transported by the piano-by-the-open-window of “aisatsana”. Don’t try to understand; answers are hard to come by, and you will only uncover further questions. This is how I like my most valued music to feel; a vehicle for intellectual and emotional positions never before considered, an ever-expanding creative question.

 In sonic terms there is an undeniable rave sensibility to Aphex Twin’s high tempo work, a persistence of UK drum and bass aesthetics in the choice of percussion sounds, a stubborn unwillingness to submit to the formal pleasantries of composition. And yet again, in contradiction to that statement, his Disklavier compositions are as affecting and sombre as any late-night Nils Frahm piano studies.

 “Blackbox Life Recorder 21f” opens this EP with that strangely mournful synth pad sound which hangs over so many of James’ compositions, with the equally recognisable skittering cymbals, chattering snares and booming bass pulse. There is always a sense in an Aphex Twin machine rhythm that the evolving beat pattern is processing itself into oblivion; rippling, stretching and tearing. The looming darkness in the swelling bass drones and the synthetic vocal tones hint at sensory dissociation, while the harmonic progression of the dusty, organic pads invites something hopeful, even utopian.

 “zin2 test5” unfolds with a sedate breakbeat and a rapid-fire synth bassline before resolving into a 4/4 rhythm that is somehow not remotely as prosaic as that may sound. Another tonal dronescape emerges in contrast to the forward motion of the mechanical rhythm, as post-industrial as Chris Carter, mournful yet unsentimental.

 “in a room7 F760” rattles into life with jackhammer toms and plenty of cowbell, before bass drones and another haunted synth haze simmer into the mix. Crisp transients and a hurried, stuttering rhythm break down into what sounds like an almost comic struggle between a drum soloist and a slap bass enthusiast. An endless trickster, this is one of those Aphex Twin tracks which permits a hearty chuckle even as you are beamed into a broken, refracted vision of electronic darkness.

 “Blackbox Life Recorder 22 (Parallax Mix)” closes the disc with a clattering remix which twists and folds the opening track into a twitching, intoning Moebius strip of reverberant synthetic noise. It feels like every sixteenth note escaped from a different sonic source and was blended into a glitchy, shifting rhythmic sequence, pulsing in vivid tones over the dread of the bass hum.

 “Blackbox Life Recorder” is accompanied by an augmented reality app called “YHBoZXh0d2lu” made by Tokyo digital firm Kalkul and featuring the artwork of persistent Aphex collaborator Weirdcore. This app uses your smartphone camera to interact with the impressive "anamorphic diorama" artwork contained within the unfolded 12” sleeve of the record. A cubic landscape features a rendering of the glyph-like Aphex Twin symbol constructed from thousands of tiny modular synth components forming a concrete cityscape.

Inside the unfolded sleeve, a desert city and ice floes are etched into the shape of the Aphex logo; in the app, these morph into polygon peaks, lily-pads, swelling chromatic pulses, volcanic fires, or the squashed features of James’ face. Rave aesthetics re-emerge in the high-contrast graphics of the app’s digital hallucinations. The cardboard cube floats alluringly in your living room, rippling and strobing in sync with the skittering percussion of the EP’s four tracks.

As a digital artwork, this is an undoubted success which bridges the gap between the physical vinyl artefact and the immateriality of music streaming; to get the entirely digital expression of the visual representation, you must commit to owning the 12” vinyl record.

This “reward” for the collector of physical media is not confined to Aphex Twin. The new album “The Fifth Dream” (IOT Records, IOT87LP) by Tunisian electronic auteur Azu Tiwaline was released as a double vinyl package three months before the album becomes available on digital services. Azu Tiwaline (whose first album I reviewed on Michael Fremer’s previous endeavour) subverts the current process whereby you can stream a new album immediately but must wait anywhere from three to twelve months for physical formats to be available. Aphex Twin’s gift to the vinyl enthusiast is a vivid stimulation of reality in virtual space which illuminates the darker corners of the sonics of this record. If your mobile phone is your blackbox life recorder, Aphex Twin also wants you to use it to enhance your engagement with advanced music production.

This release (WAP480C is the clear vinyl 45RPM variant in the UK) is not the cleanest pressing – surface noise is apparent, and some of the bass in track 1 has a slightly distorted edge. Those issues aside, this is a deep and powerful pressing presenting sonorous low frequencies and spacious digital reverb. Enthusiasts of Aphex Twin will also enjoy playing the disc at 33RPM to contemplate the dark underbelly of Aphex entropy – a fine way to test the lower threshold of your hearing or the cutoff of your system. This option also supplies the listener with a few extra minutes of music; some have complained that 14 minutes is too short for a four track EP. I personally find the tracks to be enjoyably brisk, without padding or unnecessary re-statements. If you need more Aphex Twin, visit the User18081971 Soundcloud link to explore further.

Music Specifications

Catalog No: WAP480C

Pressing Plant: Optimal Media GmbH

Speed/RPM: 45

Weight: 140 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Presentation: Single LP


  • 2023-09-26 10:16:43 AM

    andy wrote:

    Great review, love Da Twin but at €25 for 4 tracks I gave it a miss and got the 9 track 24bit download for €6.50, sounds great.

    • 2023-09-26 01:44:51 PM

      Mark Dawes wrote:

      Thanks Andy! Is this for the Blackbox Life Recorder EP? I can't find that download. Cheers, Mark

      • 2023-09-26 05:45:59 PM

        andy wrote:

        Hi Mark, yes its on Warps AT site:

        • 2023-09-27 05:29:06 PM

          Mark Dawes wrote:

          Thanks Andy! I was looking on and couldn’t see it.

          For any electronic enthusiasts who also enjoy Boards of Canada, What Hi-Fi has compiled a list of their tracks that can give your system a run.

          • 2023-09-28 01:07:53 PM

            andy wrote:

            I love them, have all their stuff on vinyl, even though I think all or most were recorded to DAT the pressings sound fantastic. Tip: get the Peel Sessions, its the only way you can listen to the fantastic Happy Cycling on vinyl.