4 out of 5
Produced by: Richard D. James
If you were following along the Richard D. James trail of releases to this point, while the approach is in the title – ambient – SAW 85 – 92 is still quite a shock, taming the harsh acid / dancefloor rave-ups of previous releases into incredibly evocative, mellifluous works, misleadingly simple at points and yet so much more immersive than “standard” electro of a similar nature. Further listens prove out what was displayed on prior RDJ tracks, and continued hereafter: a sense of nuance; of knowing when to add and take away; with some of the stranger and more aggressive sounds used previously twisted and slowed, turning the ominous and playful into the mysterious and contemplative. Not actually having been a listener at the time, I don’t know what the impact would have been, hearing this amongst electronic music of the era; coming to this after RDJ was a known MTV quantity, though, it maintains its power: James would continue to sift through softer moments on any given release, and there are enough ‘friskier’ tracks on SAW to link it to continued AFX / Caustic Window efforts and the like. Either direction you approach the album, it’s pretty mind-blowing in effectiveness: this isn’t a one-off of an artist trying their hand at a different style (even if you were to ignore the full title’s ’85 – 92′ clarifying that these compositions were being made over a range of years); it’s another expression of James, doing what he does.
While the albums slinks together seamlessly, there is a sense that some more simplistically applied acid elements are perhaps the earlier efforts; as standalones, it’s possible these tracks wouldn’t hold as much appeal. But spaced out between the depth and grace of such tracks as opener Xtal, or the edgy, angsty undercurrent of Heliospan, the puzzle is carefully arranged to guide you in and out of emotions, and immersion, and more light-heated pleasantry.
Followup ambient collection SAW II finds James pursuing this with a more defined, potentially narrower vision – but also a different m.o. It’s an interesting companion piece, and juxtaposition to his career. SAW 85 – 92 was the way to stake a claim on a debut, though, proving that all that came before was no joke, while also throwing down the gauntlet and showing that Aphex Twin could cover all bases, whilst remaining uniquely himself.