We had a discussion on which Aphex Twin album to feature first as a part of our collection at ISC HiFi, and went with Drukqs in part because it is truly his masterpiece — but also because it’s the album that became my own portal. Not only into experimental music, but also into philosophizing about what was possible, sonically, in 2001. Writing about Drukqs in 2020 still reminds me about what’s possible.
Richard James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin, Polygon Window, AFX, Tuss, Bue Calx, Bradley Strider, Caustic Window, User18081971, Power-Pill, Smojphace, Soit, P.P., the Dice Man, GAK, Q-Chastic, Phonic, Boy on Dope and probably others, released his seventh album (technically), Drukqs, on Warp Records in 2001.
By the time it arrived, Aphex Twin had already built a substantial following that was teetering on mainstream success. MTV played the surreal Chris Cunningham-directed videos for Come To Daddy and Windowlicker in the late 90’s across Europe and America.
James took advantage by building something that allowed for a commercial crossover into the cultural zeitgeist — while maintaining control of his marketing, brand and, most important, that singular blend of techno-industrial rave music. Anticipation was high for the next commercial release.
Featuring 30 songs in total, Drukqs was met with a lot of blowback from critics and journalists. Many simply just didn’t seem to understand its brilliance at the time, or took the title literally and figured that James had been too high while making it. James himself was said to have rushed the release of Drukqs after leaving an MP3 player loaded with more than 180 of his tracks on a plane. Fearing they would be leaked, he said he might as well get an album out there before the tracks landed on Napster or Limewire.
Prior to Drukqs’s release, James was known for making music through modulated synths using software he created, and a unique recording processes that sometimes included tracking direct to cassette tape over and over. My best guess on why critics panned Drukqs is that they had their own expectations of what it was meant to sound like.
The first time I listened to Drukqs was on vinyl. When the first track, “Jynweythek,” started I remember thinking that it wasn’t what I expected. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but the opposite. I knew immediately that I would be on an adventure if I allowed myself the focus to follow along.
Whereas Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and Selected Ambient Works Volume II can feel like gazing across an expansive desert, Drukqs is a sycamore — one to marvel over once you notice the intricacies of its roots, branches and life unfolding throughout the bark and on its leaves. This album builds atmospheres that help exercise the mind in the same way that classical music, with its own palette of sounds, does.
Drukqs isn’t just the soundtrack, its sonic cinema minus visuals. In fact, there were no “official” videos for any of the songs from this album. Any visual content that James released for Drukqs focused on the album cover.
The amount of information that this album communicates is staggering. When you consider it wasn’t recorded and mixed with standard digital computer systems like Protools, back in 2001, it’s exceptional. Absorbing the drum programming throughout Drukqs makes me think that I understand the importance of physics even though I slept through every math class I ever took. In the years to follow, James would go on to release a myriad of other music under different aliases or monikers, but it wouldn’t be until the release of Syro 13 years later that another official Aphex Twin album would come out.
For me, Drukqs pushed me deeper into electronic music. After, I charged head first into experimental music for the first time, and officially started to build a vinyl collection. All because of this album.
I recall recommending this to some friends who weren’t familiar with Aphex Twin back in the early 2000’s. In describing his sound, I would say that “it’s like what pop music will sound like in 2030.” Nineteen years later, one can only hope.