While the music of the Aphex Twin tells a story about the growth of the digital, the morphology of the face of Richard D James illustrates the parallel expansion of the digital into the visual arena. I Care Because You Do was the first release to use James’s face in its accompanying artwork: a lurid and sinister self-portrait, created in photoshop. Titles on the sleeve were also hand-written and a number of track titles were anagrams of Richard D James, Aphex Twin or Caustic Window. This use of autobiographics was, I think, an arch response to the general sense that electronic music was dominated, to use the argot of the time, by faceless techno bollocks. Well, here’s a face.
The fact that James was disinterested in engaging with the media leant this move a particular edge: the reclusive, or masked, counter-cultural artist stance has been parlayed many times since in various fields with varying degrees of success – Burial, Deadmau5, Banksy – and had precursors – The Residents, Underground Resistance. I think it’s fair to say that the reasons behind James’s media-avoidance were often misread and misrepresented but that, as many copyists recognised, it nevertheless proved to be effective in piquing public interest, particularly coupled with this apparently candidly autobiographical visual signature. What was distinct about Aphex is that he seemed to have decided to let the image of his face do all the media work.
The self-portrait was the seed. The video for Donkey Rhubarb took the image of James’s face and ran with it: or rather, plastered it over the faces of hip-thrusting, giant teddy-bears, and ground with it. A lurid and grotesque scenario, designed for the fried brains of ravers used to watching childrens’ TV while coming down. Reader, I was that raver.
The cover of the Donkey Rhubarb EP used a section of the face, repeated. James’s face was multiplying already, being emptied of its meaning content by repetition and reduplication. In a sense it was already reaching towards the digital – cut, copy and paste, batch process as aesthetic– as the music was doing the same, breakbeats sped and twisted out of danceable shape
The lurid nature of the self-portrait was the key, though, and Warp ran with it for the Richard D James album. Here, a cleverly lit photographic portrait fixed James’s face in the real but exaggerated certain features: the corners of the grin were raised – I’d guess this was done using the goo tool in photoshop? The lines on the face were exaggerated, perhaps using make-up. This is primarily an analogue face, but it has been digitally touched up.
The next step barely needs repeating: enter Chris Cunningham, Come to Daddy, MTV, and legions of US fans. James’s face has now been distorted, rendered in mask-form in 3-dimensions and placed on the faces of children. While James’s music was now using digital tools to perform incredible feats – listen to b-side Bucephalus Bouncing Ball for my fave from this period – Cunningham’s effects were still largely the analogue effects of the prop maker – no surprise that the TV screen acts as a womb, that old analogue medium birthing the king-mutant. Grotesquerie is the key here, the distorted, exaggerated face, the hybrid of child and adult, the long-limbed, underfed, Rich mutant: that flicker between horror and humour, the weirdness, rather than the cuteness, of the animated Dancing Baby run riot. While this riffs on Daily Mail fears of gangs of feral youths, it carries forward the raucously carnivalesque aspect of the Donkey Rhubarb short: the social order is disturbed. Once again it plays to the rave, to techno’s outlaw status, splicing it with a gothic body horror.
Windowlicker is a crunch moment. Digital grotesquerie unparalleled. Absolutely perfect photoshop work on the record cover – there is no way that the Aphex-porn woman hybrid isn’t a real thing, and indeed, each part of her was perfectly real – and the distorted visage of Rick now transmissible like a virus: from the Gene Kelly, pied piper pimp, to his bikini-clad dancers and finally the gurning, ponytailed, nightmare babe. Windowlicker obviously parodies the most misogynist excesses of hip-hop culture, but the proliferation of James’s face, its continual morphing into yet more distorted, chimeric forms, parodies mainstream culture’s obsession with image over content, superficial beauty over substance – emptying the image of any meaning and using it as endlessly malleable form.
That James’s face had become a virus was further emphasised when it was discovered after the event that it had been spectrographically inserted into the music of Windowlicker. Even the tune was structurally infected by the face. And so it has continued. Fans have made their own James masks. Various distorted versions of the face are mapped onto the faces of ravers at parties where he plays – in the digital realm of Aphex visuals, produced by Weirdcore, we’re all susceptible to the virus. The face is trying to escape its own aesthetic confines; the face has gone digitally feral.
All of which makes the latest image for Syro an intriguing addition to the canon. I guess we could read it as reflecting James’s absence from commercial release since the Analord series – no faces accompanied that – the ten year hiatus visually represented as cuts, or folds. It achieves the now-familiar grotesquerie with a jaunty analogue technique – simple excisions – but it made its way into the world through the deepnet, the realm of the digital outlaw. Digital tools are now so broadly dispersed and embedded in our lives that their use is pretty much assumed – even analogue techniques will be achieved using digital tools. The digital is now most significant as a structural distribution network and so Syro first emerges through such a network. But the face is still there, shifting, mutating and doing some of the media.
I can’t wait for Syro. The first track available, minipops 67, is incredible – so many melodic elements, so much totally ideosyncratic electronic funk, it could only have been produced by Aphex, as will become abundantly clear if you listen to the vanity-tronica tracks uploaded to youtube and passed off as Aphex before the stream was released. This sounds new, in the way that was not supposed to be possible anymore. A most welcome return round these parts.