Polygon Window – Surfing on Sine Waves (2001 reissue)

4 out of 5

Label: Warp

Produced by: Richard D. James

My perception on this is very surely wrong, so feel free not to quote me, but: back in those early internet days, when we lay peoples maybe did BBSs, or were fussing around on AOL or whatever else, discovering music was… y’know, a bit different. Word of mouth; detective hunts through record shops; magazines; for years, I would’ve sworn that Rubber Johnny was Richard D. James, because that’s how the frikkin’ store labeled the packed-in-a-plain-white-sleeve CD.

So in those days, if you were me, and you were discovering Aphex Twin late in the game, and going back through and trying to buy up what you could, there’s first – I believe – the discovery of AFX, okay, that makes sense, Aphex / AFX, and then you start to hear about all sorts of other pseudonyms as you discover Rephlex records, while trying to sift through multiple US / UK releases of albums, as well as vinyl-only stuff that may be out of reach to your CD-playing self at that point…

For whatever reason, Polygon Window – another alias – didn’t inspire that same mind-boggling sense of mystery. It seemed like a very “open” alias for RDJ, and was almost always filed with Aphex Twin releases, whereas even AFX generally had a separate spot. Being on Warp, it was always pretty accessible. And maybe because of those reasons – it’s not one of Richard’s main names; it’s not hard to track down – it seems to get skipped over in most conversations on the artist, which is odd, considering how skillfully it blends elements from both the more acid AFX and ambient Aphex work of the early 90s era, making it very much not a lark, and something that should arguably be considered as a huge stepping stone towards the IDM of the mid 90s and beyond.

That short description is, I’d say, pretty accurate: Surfing on Sine Waves cuts a line (or rides a wave, if you want to try to make something of it) between the harsh acid beats of early AFX and the soothing, nuanced electro of On-era Aphex, even touching on some of the pure ambience of Ambient Volume II with closer Quino–phec. But it’s not just a blend or a mix; Polygon Window is deservedly its own pseudonym: I’d say there’s an increased focus on percussion and organic elements in the sound, with the former very much present on the opening third or so of the disc, and the latter incredibly surprising – some feedback; naturalistic piano / instrument sounds – in the latter third. The middle of Sine Waves is always where I lose the thread a bit, as the concept simplifies, using some pretty base beats and samples for very enjoyable but perhaps less evolved tracks; PW feels pretty serious before and after this point, and then it gets boppy for a little while. That’s not a bad thing, just swerves slightly to prevent the disc from feeling like it sits alongside some RDJ classics.

Less directly, though, Sine Waves is more subtle than most of the artist’s releases. It’s not brash; it’s not squirrely; and it doesn’t have the swing-for-the-fences feel of something like SAW II; the debut notoriety of SAW I; or the playful squiggles of RDJ album and etc. In that sense, I get why it gets lost in James’ prodigious discography. At the same time, that subtlety is what makes it so unique, blending the creator’s masterful sense of balance and layering with a more “traditional” electro sound, crafting something that revels in seeming smooth while revealing itself as you re-spin it. I’ll admit that it doesn’t have a track that initially reaches out and grabs you like some of James’ main AFX / Aphex stuff, but whenever I put it on, I get stuck with it on repeat for quite a while, so impressed that there’s this gorgeous, unshowy release tucked into Richard’s discography, always staring us in the face but kind of left on the sidelines, just waiting to be put in to play.