Album / Classic
A Rusty Obelisk Made Out of Angel Sighs: Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II Turns 20
by Dave Segal
on Tue, Feb 18, 2014 at 8:17 AM
Selected Ambient Works Volume II didn’t sell many copies when Warp Records issued it in February 1994, but everyone who bought a copy of the album listened to it every night before going to sleep and then had bizarre dreams. And then they got Aphex Twin logo tattoos on the insides of their eyelids. Or was that just me?
In its unassuming, subliminal way, Selected Ambient Works II (hereafter SAW2; listen to it here) has had an immense impact on electronic music over the last two decades. It remains a pinnacle of (mostly) beatless music, forming perhaps the most interesting, strange, and affecting advancement of Brian Eno’s mid-’70s ambient strategies to date. It’s a rusty obelisk made out of angel sighs, an ocean of phantom murmurs from distant loved ones, a drizzle of tones that washes away all of your practical concerns, an aural womb of everloving warmth and mystery, a sonic mirage with the durability of stone, funk for the North Pole, Muzak™ for a depopulated world. It is all of these things and more. You probably have your own collection of outlandish metaphors for it, too.
Aphex (real name: Richard D. James) claimed that the tracks on SAW2 were triggered by lucid dreaming, and even if he was pranking the media about this, the scenario doesn’t at all seem far-fetched. This music bears heavy lids and an aura of hypnagogic ambiguity. Its 23 tracks sound as if they were laid down in some 3:47 am haze that somehow intensified James’ obsessive-compulsiveness and ability to locate the note sequences and chord clusters best suited to stealthily freak you out and soothe you. However he came to hatch these songs, James achieved a mad-genius peak in a career loaded with mad-genius moments.
In his new book-length study of SAW2 for Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, Marc Weidenbaum accurately observed that it “is a monolith of an album, but one in the manner of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one that reflects back the viewer’s impression…. It is an intense album of fragile music.” And it is seemingly impossible to get sick of it. So many people have told me that they would play SAW2 every day for long stretches of time. James' opus is so great, it even inspires brilliant, poetic comments on YouTube.
SAW2 boasts many highlights; here are a few of mine. “Rhubarb” (disc 1/track 3 on the CD) The best Eno homage ever; the tenderest melancholy imaginable. A YouTube commenter wrote: “Made in Heaven from a rare essence that brings the best out of everyone.” Which is true. “Curtains” (disc 1/track 6) Summons infinite creepiness and plaintiveness, with help from a Harold Budd-like piano motif. Aphex conjures uneasiness with utmost minimal means. “Blur” (disc 1/track 7) The most frigid, alien funk imaginable; so methodical it’s scary. “Weathered Stone” (disc 1/track 8) The “freewheeling” track; it still needs to be pitched to +20 to get a floor moving, though. Enhanced with a forlornly jolly recorder riff. “Parallel Stripes” (disc 2/track 2) Utterly gorgeous and desolate ambience—frozen grandeur, spectral whorl, a concentric sigh of timeless wonder. “Shiny Metal Rods” (disc 2/track 3) A skewed, elegant landslide of determined, grim funk that accrues a stolid momentum. Those serrated woodblock accents make it. “Window Sill” (disc 2/track 6) An eerie flute-like instrument ululates over a calm foundation of gently tapped hand drums. Oddly reminiscent of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, it offers absolute hypnosis. “Lichen” (disc 2/track 8) Verging on sentimental, this possesses a gorgeous glumness that evokes Eno’s all-time classic, “An Ending (Ascent).” “White Blur 2” (disc 2/track 11) RDJ found one of the creepiest settings on his synth, generated one of the creepiest motifs, and then let it run for 11+ minutes, periodically throwing in warped guffaws. The piece just keeps on intensifying with a gradual mania, convincing you that its creator’s having a larf at the expense of your incipient insanity.
Enough from me. To add further texture to this 20th anniversary celebration, I asked some Pacific Northwest musicians and DJs for their observations about the landmark recording. This is long, but if you’re a fan of SAW2, you probably have the attention span for it.
Lusine (Jeff McIlwain) So, I have a really long, nice story about the album, but I should probably be careful here. First, I bought it immediately when it came out at Sound Exchange in Austin in ’94 (my freshman year in college). The first Aphex album I owned. I’m pretty sure it was not well received for a long time after its release, but I really liked it in a weird sort of way. I did not grow attached to it until I had a little bit of a “bad experience” one night and it was the perfect album to calm me down in that frame of mind. I hadn’t ever heard Eno or some of his other predecessors at that point, so “Parallel Stripes,” “Corrugated Tubing,” and especially “Lichen” are life-altering tracks for me. My whole musical direction probably shifted with this one album.
Benjamin Thomas-Kennedy (Lesbian, Fungal Abyss, blouse [usa]) I have had this album longer than any other compact disc I own. It’s subtle and perfect. It never distracts from the present and yet it enhances everything. I can't think of anything that I haven't done while listening to it.
Richard D. James could be accused of not giving a fuck, but never could it stick, the allegation he didn't invent his own ways of sexing your head, and further, that he could do nothing but modern love in this way.
“Rhubarb,” while beatless and bereft of imprecations for souls à la carte, is really the essence of the Aphex melody that he'd go on to toss for years to come.
While his music is often not quick to give up the goods on the first, second, or even third listens, Aphex Twin dares to be an expensive date. For one thing, there's the bill for orange juice and cleanup. But when he opts not to blast one with pure lysergic fury, the most mundane of RDJ projects is still among the canonical origins of whatever subgenre they fall into, and indeed here we have the beginning and end of solo ambient music on the synthesizer in the early techno era. Yes, it happened that soon, was it good for you, too?
There are no questions of grittiness or smoothness here, only ineffable intent and execution. There are no obvious moods, only that which is timeless because it is vague. Jamais vu on your tongue. If someone tried to make this record now, it would likely all sound like “Radiator”— continuing on in that mood solely to “soundtrack some unmade movie,” or 12 tracks of “Weathered Stone” in order to “score some unmade video game.” Or maybe it would be done with guitars and dazzle with an entirely different sort of creativity, and none of the simplicity and opaqueness of source material. But Selected Ambient Works II made up its own Calvinball and it was actually Richardball.
Jeremy Moss (former Seattle producer for By Proxy, now based in NYC) Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II stands alone in its own category in my experience of recorded music. I had a housemate in college who was obsessed with this album. He would literally lie on the floor of his room (his speakers were on the floor) and listen to the album for days on end. Rather than being annoying, the music coming from his room seeped slowly into my subconscious. I eventually also became obsessed with the alien soundscapes, while my roommate spontaneously moved out in the middle of the night to go on a cross country road trip in his VW van searching for a lost love in Texas. He left a check for the utilities on the fridge. He wound up slitting his wrists in a motel in the Midwest. It is rumored that he survived.
These memories dovetail with the music in a viscerally melancholy way. "Rhubarb" in particular hits me in such an indescribably deep way emotionally that It is my favorite ambient song ever. To this day I get choked up within seconds of hearing it.
Jason Holstrom (U.S.E, Tonight Sky) I have so much love for Selected Ambient Works Volume II! That record was a real mind blower for me and it became super foundational in the way I picture sound. It opened up a side of my brain to think about and process music in a whole new way. It allowed me to view music and sound outside of time and linear progression and hear new beauty in dissonant drone and frequency beating. The record taught me to listen for music occurring out in the world whether it be in the sounds of nature or sounds created by "non-musical" machinery. It also was the music that I fell asleep to night after night. There is so much otherworldly beauty in that album. There's so much pleasing melody and harmonic movement as well. Love it.
Solenoid (David Chandler, DJ Brokenwindow) I bought SAW II when it came out in 1994, and it became the last Aphex Twin record I bought since I'd started following his music in 1991.
His press reputation was showing him to be somewhat snotty toward press and his fans alike. That, combined with his drill-n-bass style genre shift left me growing uninterested in his music. I have checked out but not bought from his catalog to this day, with the exception of the excellent pop of Windowlicker 12".
I was a fan of SAWI and Polygon Window and some of the early ambient "Analogue Bubblebath" tracks, as well as Cylob and ambient techno on R&S label, in general). With SAWI, like many people online, I did doubt that the tracks really went back to 1985 as the "1985-1992" on the cover claimed. James' tendency to lie to the press in the extreme. For example, his claiming that his spray-painted Casio FZ rack sampler as a sampler that he built himself from scratch. I had one of these and recognized the layout as well as could hear some of its signature sound. This kind of attitude was evident in a lot of the industrial music personalities, like Boyd Rice and David Tibet, and I've always found such personalities eventually got in the way of my enjoying the music, and led me to drift elsewhere....
Anyway, the music is great, and very much his kind of ambient sound, though, in several places, it does feel like filler. I sometimes couldn't shake the sense that Richard James was just throwing every spare ambient track, good or bad, into the mix, as though he was trying to get out of a record contract by just filling up 3 full records. The minimalism of the music is free from his ego/personality enough that I can enjoy those parts anyway, though the filler tracks just seem to make time pass, rather than actually create an interesting atmosphere. As a producer, and as a fan of minimalist visual art (and conceptual art), I've learned to enjoy even incidental atmospheric ambiences, so I wouldn't be horribly offended if it turned out some of his or any other ambient music artist's album was made with synths set to autopilot. It’s about the overall effect for me, and ambient music is the part of my record collection that gets played most, sometimes for the purely wallpaper-like effect it can have. As a musician myself, I spend plenty of time intensely focused on and breaking down music, so having a collection of music that is just carefree and decorative is just fine. I needn't always hold it to the same degree of scrutiny as something I find compositionally challenging.
I probably have listened to SAWII about once a year since it came out, but started to appreciate it more when the tide of that style of ambient techno artists of the early ’90s subsided by '97, when I realized that such music was actually of a finite supply. That is kind of how I felt about the early 2000s Kompakt ambient music, by the way: there was a ton of it for a while, then it was gone and only then did I realize how much mileage I got out of it as a background soundtrack at my apartment. I have a house now, and the ambient vinyl is the center of the small part of my record collection that actually lives upstairs by the living room stereo. SAWII is in the "90s" section near the Seefeel, Locust, and Biosphere. [Solenoid's great Talking Acid 7" is out now on Community Library.]
Chris Pollina (Eldridge Gravy and the Court Supreme) I found SAW II online when I was 15 and living in New Hampshire. Amazon was still in its early days of selling music online and clicking the "if you like this, you might like..." got me to this album. It's been getting regular play for half of my life now. There are two tracks on the album (“Rhubarb” and “Lichen”—pop it into your computer for names of songs) that are still some of the simplest, most beautiful songs I've ever heard. I still don't like listening to that one with the clown laughing ["White Blur 2"].
Gandhi Jones (Keith J. Haubrich) To me, there are two phases of Aphex Twin, the first one ending with 1994's Selected Ambient Works II, the last gasp of Richard D. James' sensitive approach to experimental electronic music. Everything that followed that album was a declaration of musical discord, twisted to parallel the rise of faster-paced jungle and drum & bass. If you like his softer, smoother side, S.A.W II marks the peak of that seminal phase of his discography.
Cully Ewing [worked for Tasty Shows in the ’90s doing old-school, low-tech, psychedelic light shows for many famous DJs and electronic acts.] During this time period (before Internet) we would go camping north of Marysville just to listen to CBC broadcasting Patti Schmidt's Brave New Waves radio show from 12am to 4am. On one of her show's she featured Richard D. James. I pressed "Rec.-Play" on my boom box and have never been the same. She played cuts from Polygon Window and Selected Ambient Works Vol.2 etc. This is definitely after midnight music for me—iridescently reflecting on life experiences around a campfire. Can't say I like every single song on this album, but most of it I still listen to this day.