Happy birthday ‘Drukqs’: the Aphex Twin album turns 15
Famed for being a confrontational listening experience, it still sounds dazzlingly fresh
Drukqs album by Aphex Twin: “It is split roughly three ways between hyper-complex glitch-operas, drum-free keyboard pieces and miscellaneous mucking about”
Some cultural artefacts don’t suit getting older. I don’t mean those that age badly, but rather those that barely age at all, continuing to seem new and jarringly modern for long after their birth date should allow. Strange freaks of creativity that don’t lose their novelty, even when all formerly new things shed their lustre and you realise that even J Lo spent the 1990s wearing jackets that looked like they were made from tractor tyres.
Aphex Twin’s fifth studio album Drukqs, quite possibly my favourite of all time, is one such timeless object. Released in 2001, it recently turned 15 years old, making it the same age I was when I first heard it. It still sounds dazzlingly fresh, which makes it even more bizarre that it entered the charts the same week as crusty old pop fossils such as Sum 41’s Fat Lip and Who Let The Dogs Out? by the Baha Men.
As far as I can tell, Drukqs charted higher in Ireland (14) than any other territory, although as a Derryman I can’t claim to have contributed to this achievement. I remember racing to Cool Discs after school on release day, a process that I’ll admit now seems patently insane: entering a building outside my own home to pick up a musical release I could never have previously sampled.
Stiffly addictive prettiness
Once home, I began playing it really loud in the kitchen while making dinner. The stiffly addictive prettiness of opener Jynweythek Ylow, played on a computer-controlled piano filled with nuts and bolts, soon gave way to Vordhosbn; a soaring, frenetic masterpiece that took up the glitch gauntlet laid down by Aphex Twin’s biggest hit Windowlicker and made something with even more swaggering heft. I was transported.
I found myself braced by the depth and spread of its tone and rhythm, and the whole thing bristled with a cardiac seriousness that left me agog. If you’re older than me, it must have felt like the euphoric time you heard imperial measures were being phased out. For younger readers: just imagine discovering a selfie stick shaped like Peppa Pig.
From an acoustic perspective, I had never experienced anything like it. Standing as I peeled potatoes, it felt like new spaces were unfolding in my head where none had previously existed; unboxing outward into shapes I’d never experienced. Every muffled blob of bass, every fizzing snare echo seemed to have been painstakingly sculpted with infinitesimal acuity. I had no idea what was going on and adored every second.
Spanning 30 tracks and 100 minutes long, Drukqs is split roughly three ways between hyper-complex glitch-operas, drum-free keyboard pieces and miscellaneous mucking about. To put it mildly, the album boasts a dizzying array of sounds, which may explain its reputation for being an abstruse or confrontational listening experience, some reviewers even suggesting it was just a two-fingered contract breaker for Richard D James’ deal with Warp Records.
There are bits that even I find boring, oblique or even stupid. There are also many parts I adore, but can appreciate may be alienating to others; the pummelling 54 Cymru Beats, or the hauntingly austere Gwely Mernans, which sounds like a ghost ship sailing through a sunken power plant.
But Drukqs also contains long passages of quiet reflection, such as the lushness that follows 54 Cymru Beats, including the bell drones of Btoum-roumada and the divine richness of Penty Harmonium.
And then there are the song titles. They seem to have been written with the sole intent of making you bite your tongue if you try to say them out loud. Beskhu3epnm and Omgyjya-Switch7 seem to be Estonian wifi codes.
Back in my kitchen in 2001, my dad popped his head in to ask if I’d bought one of those specifically designed data discs used to test the sonic range of speaker systems. Something of a tech aficionado, he was not joking, and seemed genuinely wounded when I informed him that it was actually music.
However, as a demonstration of the versatility of this incredible record, that very same bewildered dad sat at my sister’s wedding some years later, his face scrunched up in that adoring expression he makes when Enya does a really good “aaaaaaaaaaaaah”. Turning to ask me what song was leading them down the aisle, I replied with glee that it was Avril 14th, a plaintive, simple piano work taken from those very same discs he’d maligned for all those years.
The fact that this track subsequently found its way on to a compilation CD he asked me to make for him (nestled between a Daniel O’Donnell Greener Pastures and the theme from Dave Fanning’s RTÉ film review show) is a greater tribute to the album’s wide and lasting appeal than I could put into words. Happy birthday, Drukqs.