There’s a reason why Reddit users frantically threw together a playlist of the tracks that Aphex Twin spun during London’s Field Day just hours after the set ended. The U.K. producer named Richard James remains one of electronic music’s most cherished and mysterious figures. Part of this is due to his elusive persona, but there’s something inherently uncanny about the music he makes, whether the primeval futurism of 1992’s groundbreaking Selected Ambient Works 85-92, or the (relatively) more tuneful IDM classics such as “Windowlicker.” It’s easy enough to pick out precedents — a little bit of post-electronic jazz there, a touch of Eno’s ambient experiments here — but the final product remains opaque and uniquely his own. This singularity of sound and vision is one of the reasons that he’s developed the sort of fervent fan base that tracks his every movement.
This playlist of songs is essential listening for those fans. The austere corporal march of Kamxilo’s “Splxcity” approximates a type of musical brutalism, and transitions nicely into the deconstructed synth stabs of “WARSZAMA” from Chino Amobi, the Virginia noise artist and co-founder of NON Records. The jarring, introductory portion of the set reaches an apex (of sorts) with the grinding gears of Shapednoise’s “Witness of a Heart Attack Death” before settling into a stretch of slightly disjointed electro funk that mirrors James’ own aesthetic. The set ends with a 90’s nostalgia trip: Underground Resistance’s “Nannytown”; a choice track from Squarepusher’s excellent ‘99 album, Selection Sixteen; and Alec Empire’s screeching Suicide-homage, “Everything Starts with a Fuck.”
Still, listening to a playlist comprising tracks exclusively from the DJ set is an odd experience. As an unmixed, dangling historical artifact, experienced within the confines of headphones or home speakers, it’s not how or where James wanted the music to be heard. Conscious of this, your mind fills in some of the blanks: the 3D mapped light instillation; the entrances and exits of the segways; the sweat and flesh of the festival crowd. It’s an incomplete experience, but it’s also interactive, and feels less like you’re staring through a tiny peephole at a much larger world, and more like you’re parsing an ancient, oblique text. And you come away with that reading having heard, and discovered, some amazing music.