Ten years from its release date, Richard D. James’ final album under his Aphex Twin moniker remains as intractable as ever, an enigma that rose up from the sands of electronica and stood towering over the land while its creator retired into obscurity.
Yet how to begin to grasp the unwieldy complexity of this polymorphous work of music, a work whose very heterogeneity would seem to defy the imperious nature of such an action. Perhaps we could begin by identifying some of the themes present throughout the album, breaking it down and creating taxonomies, categorising its tracks, perhaps by trying to pin down some of the most obvious influences: the prepared piano of John Cage, the musique concrète of composers such as Edgard Varèse, and finally, the schizophrenic intricacy of a percussion that seemed to confront the tension between the abstract and apparent chaos advocated by Stockhausen and the regularity of the “post-African” drum patterns of the techno music whose repetitiousness he famously critiqued. The result is a vast landscape of undeniable individuality, of haunting melodies, at times tinged with melancholy and nostalgia, of abrasive, jarring sounds, of frenetic, cascading percussion arrangements whose intricacy and flow remain unrivalled to this day.
However we could equally well approach the album on a different level, from within the context of electronic music itself: steering clear of the cult of personality once ambiguously coveted by the creator of the work, we could chart the development of his repertoire, noting perhaps the work’s role in marking an apogee, the end of a certain stage in his career, as well representing a fin de siècle andpoint of inflection for electronica as a whole. Here, the idea of an apogee, of the highest point reached by a celestial body, would seem particularly apt. While it may be somewhat anachronistic to talk in this day and age of celestial bodies and the heavens, a romantic throwback to a bygone era, there can be no doubt that the album represents a culmination in the development of electronic music, a magnificent fulfilment of its potential to break from a culture obsessed by cloying subgenres, to push beyond its boundaries and break free from its constraints; it is a work that stands out from a generation of music that had little to offer in the way of compositional substance and longevity, that was of little relevance beyond the moment and the subgenre by which it was defined. Drukqs was the point at which electronic music threatened to break free from its stable orbit and leave the genre itself behind; it was the point at which the heavenly body looked as though it might be not an apogee but instead might escape altogether, like a shooting star darting off into the realms of a smooth musical space. Here was a work that threatened to transcend electronic music, to move beyond into the undiscovered realms of something arguably more serious and certainly more mature.
Or else, finally we could immerse ourselves the minutiae of its subtleties and complexities, the personal details left behind in track names and samples, we could contrast the multiple threads of its composition, the hidden clues buried amongst the obscurity of the Cornish language; we could attempt to debunk the myth surrounding its creation, to affirm the evident truth that something so singular, so unique, could never be merely accidental.
Yet all attempts to capture the essence of this piece seem doomed to fail, condemned to come up against the inevitable stumbling block that is the lack of a suitable discourse or language with which to comprehend the music itself: the lack of well-formed concepts, of words and phrases with which to grasp it, to shape and mould it to conform to the limits of our conscious mind. Indeed, were such a feat possible, we could no doubt spend a lifetime trying to invent our own language, perhaps only to be reminded in the final instance that the real beauty of music, the heart of its mystery, is that it speaks to parts of us that language cannot, that it expresses something that words never will; for all that we may try to describe and probe it, we will never come to know it, perhaps reminding us that, in the words of Borges, the solution to the mystery is often inferior to the mystery itself.