3 out of 5
Produced by: Richard D. James
If you’d talked to me at different points in my active music-listening career, I’d probably have quite different things to say about Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II. While the previous Ambient Works album allowed kids like me to up our sophisticated nature and shit, listening to tasteful and “intelligent” dance music, its ‘ambient’ tag giving it an allure of being just a little more evolved than one’s standard electro – and it was, of course, it just sounds like something you might find in the classical music section, stored next to those Beethoven and Mozart CDs on one’s shelf that are proof of varied listening tastes, and maybe scooted away from those Korn CDs over there.
That first set was accessible, though, a hop or two away from the squiggly, occasionally anarchic electro found on Richard D. James’ other works at the time. And as the reception at the time of SAWII has shown us, this set was less so, and also quite puzzling to listeners hoping for an easy extension of the same, as we’re now wholly embracing the ambient genre: 2 discs of 7-12 minute minimalist soundscapes, sometimes barely more than a beat and a slow, plonking, almost unchanging in a drone-like fashion on disc 1. Some people celebrated the emotional investment of the project; some questioned its value. Excepting probably the smarter ears in the crowd, I’m not sure anyone knew exactly what to do with it at the time.
And my story is a little fudged, because I came to SAWII after the fact, sometime after Come To Daddy had MTV’d its way to me and been further recommended by a friend at the time. So I had reviews and history to absorb before hearing Selected Ambient Works 2, and also had my bias of “RDJ is a genius” rose-coloring my listening experience. Thus, at the time, the album was guaranteed a warm reception by me, regardless of the content.
It also wasn’t something I listened to too much, beyond jumping on the ‘lucid dreaming’ method of composition James used for the album, which led to me often leaving the disc playing while going to sleep. And, honestly, that’s still something I’d recommend – not as a backhanded snipe, but because the tunes can be pretty evocative in those moments you’re drifting off, and starting to see bits and pieces of dreams…
Later, in trying to reassess and slim down my music collection, SAWII was on the chopping block: having an album that you fall asleep to is great and all, but doesn’t give it high value in the “I really want to listen to this” category, which was kinda the criteria for music that stayed or went. And in trying to give the discs another go, I found the music pretty mundane, to the point of disliking it – the stretched out, moderately unstructured, very minimalist nature of it didn’t fit in to any boxes of other styles of music I owned and enjoyed.
Later later, we’re finally here, when I’m listening to the album with purpose, needing to “understand” it for a review. When there’s something like SAWII – something somewhat impenetrable – that means listening to it over and over until I feel I have a grasp on it.
I’m still not sure I do.
There’s something to consider there, that a 20+ year old album (it’s currently 2022) still puzzles me. That I float between boredom and fascination while it plays. I do, after all this time, note that Disc 1 seems much more like drifting into dreams, with its opening cuts having gentle but extant beats, and (using the generally accepted names of the tracks) songs like Radiator, or Hankie, even having clearer ebbs and flows, as RDJ builds on some slowly swelling synths and a few plonking notes. But much of it is very immobile, while being mastered in this muted way that prevents it from really being absorbing; hence it being pretty ideal background for subtly invading your thoughts while drifting off to sleep. Disc 2, meanwhile, is comparatively moving, and aggressive, allowing beats to have a presence and notes of ominousness sneak in, such as on the nightmarish Shiny Metal Rods. Finally, we name check on song from disc 1 – White Blur 2 – as SAWII sinks back into the background: the dreamer waking up.
It’s hard to call it an experience, because part of the point seems to not immerse you. As standalone music, it floats in and out of some revelatory, gorgeous moments – and briefly, on disc 2, becomes something with memorable melodies, and a more direct effect that can leave tunes and tones lingering in your thoughts – but ultimately remains a very elusive listen. Not something I’d put on for “pleasure,” and almost too sedate for even background music as one walks around or does other things.
So I’d stand by the influence of its creation still being the best way to listen to it: when you’re half-awake, and susceptible to its small synth wiggles and tremors of beats. But the fact that it remains a somewhat cryptic puzzle after all this time does lend it some notability, and whether or not it can be decried as overly simplistic at points, James’ commitment to SAWII’s overall design and feel – carried through the cryptic packaging – further makes it something worth at least a few listens.