Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II

Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II

Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin, always seems to make music with a wry grin on his face. When he released Aphex Twin’s seminal collection Selected Ambient Works Volume II in 1994, he declined to name any of the album’s 24 tracks. Instead, he simply numbered them from 1 through 24, giving Selected Ambient Works Volume II an air of mystery—as though someone had found a spare mix CD on the ground, and distributed it through Britain’s most influential indie label, Warp. Dedicated fans eventually decided to assign their own track titles, based on the album’s artwork—a move that speaks to the devotion and discussion that Volume II has inspired over the past few decades. It’s a classic of the ambient genre, one that James famously—and perhaps with a winking facetiousness—claimed was inspired by the sounds in his lucid dreams. He set out to recreate what he was hearing in his sleep, and the result was less like the organic new wave coming out of Japan, and more like minimalist industrial music. Instead of focusing on harmonious, naturalistic sounds, James crafted something more metallic and tonal: “Track #2 (Radiator)” softly bubbles, like someone’s playing on the pipes of an abandoned factory with a marimba mallet. “Track #15 (Shiny Metal Rods)” has a dark electric crackle—it’s techno by way of Brian Eno. Not everyone was happy with Volume II, though. James’ illustrious career as one of the UK’s most famous rave DJs, as well as Aphex Twin's previous release—Selected Ambient Works 85–92—had created an image of what his music “should” sound like. The ambient collection on Volume II was perhaps too gentle or too atmospheric for fans who wanted the hard-charging “intelligent dance music” of Aphex Twin. But James has made a career out of shapeshifting, going where his instincts take him. He may be electronic music’s consummate joker, but there's nothing trivial about his music.

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