This CD used to be hard to find, but is now available in most record stores I visit, probably by popular demand. This was the record that established Richard D. James's reputation, via his alter ego Aphex Twin, as the most talented and cutting-edge of the new electronic music artists. He had already released several singles prior to 1992, including the highly praised Analogue Bubblebath and Didgeridoo, but it was Selected Ambient Works 85-92 that began the Aphex Twin myth, virtually defining the ambient music genre for years.
The title itself became part of the myth - in 1985, Richard was 14 years old, experimenting with a combination of homemade and purchased or stolen equipment in his bedroom, in (supposedly) almost complete ignorance of the music of his time. For a 14-year-old to have produced any of the music on this album is amazing to everyone who listens to it. The production was done on a shoestring budget, and many of the tracks have a strange, primitive, almost cheap sound to them - a friend of mine listened to track 4, Ageispolis, and said it sounded like it was played on a Casio keyboard. I wouldn't be surprised if that were true - Aphex Twin CDs are full of hidden jokes, parodies and fun.
The opening track, Xtal, is sweet and dreamlike, with a breathy female voice looping over a bouncy breakbeat. All the sounds are muted, as if played through a layer of felt, and it's probably one of the most upbeat and soft tracks Richard D. James has ever made. A reviewer describes it as "the Cocteau Twins recording in a garage". It's almost five minutes long, but seems shorter, just because you want it to keep going. It's followed by my favourite of the album, Tha, a nine-minute-long journey through pure ambient textures, in which a haunting and simple melody, a driving but subtle bass beat, and quiet samples of voices all join together. It would be my favourite ambient track of all time if not for the truly unmatchable on earth, from 1194 by woob.
The same drifting, spaced-out feeling continues through tracks 3-5, until Green Calx, which jolts the listener out of whatever paralytic state of relaxation they may have entered. It's jarring, harsh, complex and loud, not ambient at all, and I used to hate it because it interrupted the feel of the album for me. Later, as my understanding of the album deepened, I began to see all the tracks together as a story, and Green Calx as a disturbing episode in the story, a wake up call - a message that life is not always pleasant. I might be over-interpreting, though. Richard might well have put it in there just as a joke.
The ambient journey resumes with track 7, Heliosphan, another outstanding and beautiful track which always makes me think of interstellar travel - it's fast but not too fast, spaced but focused, just like a spaceship - maybe even the Starship Enterprise - warping down a funnel of stars that are turning into little streaks of light around it. No, I haven't done too many drugs to be objective. Yes, this album is all about the imagination.
More fun is had with track eight, the bouncy and tripped-out We Are The Music Makers, which samples Gene Wilder's voice from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - "We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams," and from then on (tracks 9-13), for me anyway, the album fades into one long, slow, pulsing piece of inner music. Each of the last 5 tracks is beautiful in its own way, but I can't keep them separate, or hear them individually in my mind when I read their names. It's as if the album itself takes me through a process of forgetting and absorption, until at a certain point I no longer care which track I'm listening to.
This is one of my favourite albums ever. Together with its even more ambient follow-up, Selected Ambient Works II, it has managed to open up and map large tracts of my unconscious mind. I learned a lot from it, not just about music but about my own mind and how it works, because I found that in listening to it I was able to watch how the music made me have certain thoughts, or recall feelings or memories from long ago. I found that the tracks, individually and as a whole, carried meanings, stories, which may or may not have been consciously intended by their author, but which made me look at music in a new way. Suddenly I was going back to Beethoven and understanding how to listen to his symphonies. I'm sure if I told Richard D. James that, he'd just laugh at me. Kindly.
Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Warp Records, 1992
- Xtal (4'51)
- Tha (9'01)
- Pulsewidth (3'47)
- Ageispolis (5'21)
- i (1'13)
- Green Calx (6'02)
- Heliosphan (4'51)
- We are the music makers (7'42)
- Schottkey 7th Path (5'07)
- Ptolemy (7'12)
- Hedphelym (6'02)
- Delphium (5'36)
- Actium (7'35)