As introductions to Aphex Twin albums go, the first track on Syro, “minipops 67 [120.2] (source field mix),” is disconcerting in its directness, especially after 2001’s divisive Druqks. Whereas most of that album sounded like a daffy prank on the listener as retribution for ridiculously high expectations, “minipops 67” is warm, inclusive, and surprisingly earnest. With its loping bass, neo-garage drum line, and moody keys, it could pass for a Four Tet remix of a Kid A cut, with nattering robots and Gregorian chants added for good measure. “XMAS_EVET10  (thanaton3 mix),” “4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26],” and “Produk 29 ” are similarly subdued, setting their fidgeting snares and burbling rumble against a melancholy collage of bells, echoing piano, warped synths, and melted vocals. If not for their wacky nomenclature, all three tracks could slip into a Burial album without kicking up much dust.
“180db_ ” is the first thing here to show signs of Richard D. James’s anarchic sense of humor. A three-minute skip across the dance floor with a melody that’s almost primordial in its simplicity, it functions as either a loving homage or a really mean parody of Richie Hawtin. Both “CIRCLONT6A [141.98] (syrobonkus mix)” and “CIRCLONT14 [152.97] (shrymoming mix)” also find James flashing a bit of that signature devilish grin, with chopped funk that sounds like Outkast if they were signed to Digital Hardcore. The latter is a particular marvel, imagining a technophile “Peter Gunn” splintered with buckshot. “syro u473t8+e [141.98] (piezoluminescence mix)” speeds the drilling thump up a bit, but doubles back to the beginning of the album with its beautiful despondency. “PAPAT4  (pineal mix)” and “s950tx16wasr10 [163.97] (earth portal mix)” turn the drum machine loose at a setting somewhere between methed-out jungle and malfunctioning fax machine. On most any other artist’s album, this would signal a noisy war of attrition to follow, but since this is Aphex Twin, the drums are married to delicately exquisite melodies. Both those songs, the palate-cleansing microsuite “fz pseudotimestretch+e+3 [138.85],” and album closer “aisatsana ” call to mind the gloomy loveliness of Boards of Canada or Ulrich Schnauss.
Describing the work by a newer artist, one would marvel at the diversity (and good taste) of the album’s sonic palette. But then you consider the length and awesome scope of James’s career, and it becomes clear that a game of “spot the influences” is actually “spot the children.” He’s been the preeminent funhouse mirror held up to contemporary music for almost three decades now, but even that description isn’t entirely adequate. Imagine a mirror which distorts not just the reflection, but reality itself, and you have a fair idea of the stunning legacy to which Syro triumphantly belongs.