For anyone raised on rock & roll, the new world of electronic music can seem like a strange and forbidding place. From trip-hop to techno, acid house to drum and bass, the myriad styles and subgenres bear names far more exotic than "punk" and "grunge," and the music doesn't play by rock's rules. Songs rarely follow verse-chorus-verse formulas, they don't often have singers, and even when you get a guitar riff, chances are, it's been sampled off an old record and distorted until it doesn't sound like a guitar anymore.
for guitar gods in the electronic age, new heroes are emerging. From sample junkies such as DJ Shadow to techno geeks like Aphex Twin, a generation of artists is using technology to reshape the way pop music is made and the way we hear it.
Richard James, a k a Aphex Twin, is one of the seminal artists of the current British ambient-music scene. Using only his own modified synthesizers and rewired keyboards, along with found sounds, the former electronics student transforms a world of disconnected noises into peculiar soundscapes that have brought a quirky human dimension to the normally austere pulse of dance-floor techno.
Isolated in his London studio, the eccentric composer (he keeps a surplus army tank in his parents' back yard and claims he sleeps only two hours a night) has gradually moved away from the somber minimalism of his early work to create a fuller, more varied sound. On 1995's I Care Because You Do, for instance, he veered from wiry, buzzing squalor to chunky, slow-rolling rhythms that wouldn't have sounded out of place next to the trip-hop of Tricky and Portishead.
Richard D. James takes Aphex Twin even further from techno conventions, combining jolting beats, pristine melodic fragments and random noises into elegant if at times unnerving futuristic pop. From the first song, "Cornish Acid," in which a melancholic passage of cello and violin sounds is splintered by a racing jungle beat, to the fusion of chamber music and squiggly cartoon noises in "Logan Rock Witch," Aphex Twin manipulates his infinite palette of tweaked synth tones like a classical composer arranges a string section with each discrete sound adding shade and complexity to the overall work.
Not all of Richard D. James goes down easy. There's menace lurking beneath the jerking beat of "Peek 824542,01." And "Milkman" takes a twisted turn with the lyric "I would like some milk/From the milkman's wife's tits." But amid the dark currents and rush of alien sounds, Aphex Twin coaxes great emotional resonance from his machines. During the album's most lyrical moments the delicately brooding "Yellow Calx" and the lusty "Girl/Boy Song" the dance-floor Wunderkind seems poised to reinvent himself as techno's first poet.
Unlike Aphex Twin, DJ Shadow doesn't play any of the instruments on his debut full-length LP, Endtroducing