Selected Ambient Works 85-92
Richard D. James’ capacity for self-mythologising was in effect from day one. Few artists would have the gumption to present their debut album as a greatest-hits anthology—one that purports to collect tracks James made as a teenager whilst fiddling around with self-modified synthesisers in his Cornwall, UK bedroom. Whether Selected Ambient Works: 85-92 did indeed document the work of a production prodigy or if it was just a savvy bit of packaging remains a bit of a mystery—like much of James’ biography. But this much is certain: after the album’s release, electronic music was never really the same.
True to James’ prankster reputation, the “ambient” in that title is something of a misnomer—in contrast to that genre’s weightless, shapeless, unobtrusive qualities, the music here carries obvious traces of James’ roots as a rave DJ. But through his freaky filter, dance music became less of a social experience and more of an interior one. While tracks like “Xtal” and “We are the Music Makers” may be anchored by 4/4 house pulses and hip-hop-schooled breaks, the rhythms function less as engines than distant homing beacons that guide you through a hallucinatory fog of mercurial synth melodies, cryptic vocal samples, and oceanic textures. James’ auteurist approach to beatmaking led legions of producers down the experimental rabbit hole that became known as intelligent dance music, but Selected Ambient Works: 85-92 is comparatively elegant—a warm, inviting, sophisticated antidote to the siren-blaring assault of rave. Still, in the warped, acid-soaked synths of “Green Calx” and nightmarish descent of “Hedphelym”, we hear early sonic manifestations of the demonic grin that would later become James’ visual and spiritual trademark.