Aphex Twin’s Syro and the Joy of Forgetting (and Remembering)

Enigmatic and revered electronic artist Aphex Twin (real name Richard D. James) released his long […]

Joey Shook / 10.2.14


Enigmatic and revered electronic artist Aphex Twin (real name Richard D. James) released his long awaited new album, Syro, last week, ending a 13-year hiatus that followed his previous album, Drukqs. The new album is–in true Aphex Twin form–a colossally dense and impeccably composed piece of electronic music that morphs, warps, and toils considerably for its 65 minute run time. This tends to make for a somewhat unsettling listen in places (given the harsh and, in some cases, terrifying sounds he exuded during much of his 90s output, it’s not unexpected). As soon as you get your footing on a melody, sound, or chord progression, James shifts the floor and starts walking in a different direction completely, which means Syro’s 65 minutes can feel laborious and a blur all at once. I suspect it will take a considerable amount of time to fully absorb and appreciate the record.

From a recent interview that Aphex Twin did with Pitchfork, it sounds like, for all intents and purposes, that this was kind of the point:

Pitchfork: One interesting thing about the record is how every song keeps morphing—I don’t think there are two bars that are identical in any track. It’s like an organism.

RDJ: It can be quite impenetrable for most people, because you can’t latch on to something. It sounds quite random at first. I’m an erratic person: From setups to actually when I’m doing a track, it’s just turning and switching and changing all the time. But there is a method. People just have to take time to work it out.

All this to say that it’s not that I don’t like the album–I actually enjoy it a lot. But as interesting as the “impenetrable” qualities of the album may be, I tend to have trouble really remembering much of the music. If you played a random section, I’m not sure I could pinpoint which song or part of the album it belonged to. When thinking about it after the first few cursory listens, I had thoughts like “I know that I really liked track 2” but in the back of my mind, I couldn’t really recall why.


As entertainment consumers, we have in recent years placed a high priority on the act of remembering a piece of art that we’ve enjoyed or has moved us in a certain way. With the onslaught of endlessly new content that the Internet has provided us, rememberance–or, in a lot of cases, nostalgia–has become a highly priced commodity. Ironically enough, the content machine that is BuzzFeed has completely commodified this concept with a full page of their site now cataloging 90s nostalgia lists.

Telling a friend about a specific song that we really liked. Tweeting out thoughts about a movie. These are all ways in which we are remembering or recalling (and frankly broadcasting) a piece of art or how it affected us. What value is there in experiencing art for its transformative, transcendent, or erudite qualities if we can’t even remember it? Many music reviews I’ve read have written off the artist being reviewed simply because they make music that seems to “drift in one ear and out the other” or leave the listener with “nothing to latch onto.” Something that is great should stick with you in some way, the thinking goes. We need some kind of foothold, something to recall or come back to, lest we be tried and convicted in the public court of Facebook or Youtube comment sections for being just another content bottom feeder and not a true fan or “critic” of the art we are experiencing.

Music critic Mark Richardson was recently asked on his Tumblr if he ever worried about forgetting his favorite music, something that I’ve given some thought to after years of constantly digging and discovering new music. His reply seems surprisingly unbothered and touches on a special joy found in forgetting and then remembering:

“I don’t worry, because it’s going to happen. And when it does happen, it can actually be kind of fun. There’s a special joy in hearing something you loved a while ago but had forgotten completely. In one way it’s almost better than the first time you heard it, because you have that feeling of brand-new discovery combined with memory of why it mattered in the first place. That can be exhilarating. But more broadly, I am comfortable with the current state of the human capacity for memory. I think the amount of stuff that fits in there is just right, given how long we live.”

The act of remembrance can be certainly a Christian or spiritual one, and typically a joyful one at that. We plant reminders everywhere, from the Eucharist (“do this in remembrance of me”), to post-it notes on desks, to Bible verses written on mirrors, etc. And while these are all good and fruitful, there is a another type of joy that comes as a result of our fallen “human capacity for memory”: the joy of forgetting and remembering. By naturally forgetting a significant portion of memories, moments, and works of art, we allow for an unrehearsed form of remembrance, something outside of our control and planning. Remembrances discovered in a brief, passing moment when pulling a dusted copy of “A Farewell To Arms” off the bookshelf and recalling all the humid summer nights spent slouched years ago on my parents back porch reading and dreaming of falling in love with a nurse or going to war; or while listening to Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs and recalling the time we all drove to go hiking at Ruby Falls on the first day of spring while Sung Tongs played on the car stereo with the windows down and the still cool spring air could almost be tasted on our lips; or driving past the small restaurant south of downtown where we met for drinks that time after days of walking past each other in deafening silence and she said she forgave me and, God, she really didn’t have to forgive me.


The last song on Syro is a somber solo piano piece titled “aisatsana [102]” (the title being James wife’s name Anastasia spelled backwards). After 11 complex electronic songs, James spends the final minutes of his album slowly plinking variations of a simple melodic phrase on a piano in his living room with the windows open and birds heard chirping outside. Given the title, the song has a content hope imbued in it that seems to joyfully rest in each pause between phrases.

Tellingly, it’s the one song from the album that I can recall pretty easily right now because of how simple, repetitive and stark it sounds compared to the rest of the album. Buried at the end of a complex album such as Syro though, I can imagine that in some years’ time, “aisatsana [102]” will possibly slip from my memory. Like Richardson though, I can only anticipate the joy of remembering that comes when years from now I’ll return to Syro and experience “aisatsana [102]” as if for the first time again.