I could not write any further reviews on here without first reviewing this album. This album holds a special place in my collection. It was actually the first album that got me into ambient music, when I was about 12 or 13 years old. Unfortunately, at the time, the first volume, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, was still out of print and hard to track down, until it was finally remastered in 2008. However, this album took my breath away at the first listen. It sounded more like a soundtrack to an imaginary film to me at the time. The main reason for that is because when I listened to this the first time, I had wanted to become a filmmaker, and had already envisioned a psychological horror-thriller of sorts in my head, and amazingly, the music seemed to fit right in with the mood and setting of the film I imagined. If I would have gone through with the project, I would have probably become almost like David Lynch, listening to this album constantly while on set, and eventually adding it into the film itself. Unfortunately, the project didn’t fall through for me, mainly because I was young, and the ideas were too expensive for my young self at the time. Nevertheless, the music stayed with me forever. 25 almost beatless soundscapes, with evolving yet repetitive textures, and ranging drastically in moods, from the most beautiful and serene nostalgic memories to the most disturbing and menacing places ever imaginable. It’s an ambient album unlike any other, and though it was released about 17 years ago, it still conjures up emotions that are timeless and just as new as the first time I had listened to it. Also, it should be noted that except for the track “Blue Calx”, all the tracks are technically untitled. Over time, fans have attached titles to the songs, so I will be referring to them with these titles.
The album starts with “Cliffs”, which contains rhythmic ambient synthesizers and clipped vocal samples, which phase in and out of each other with delay effects and such. It has somewhat of an oriental and otherworldly sound to it, and is quite a good start to the album. “Radiator” contains metallic sounds that sound pretty much like a, well, radiator, but the sounds here are somewhat dark and contain uncertainty. In the middle of the track, there are also some light beats, but are more meant for adding an atmosphere than being added to make people dance. “Rhubarb” is perhaps one of the most beautiful songs ever composed with a synthesizer. The melancholic chords and melodies are played with an effective use of heavenly sounds. Digital flutes and glass pads can also be heard throughout the piece as well. However, the album takes a dark turn with “Hankie”, which contains very eerie sounds, some of which has the reminiscence of church bells. The melodies and harmonies, however, are much too dissonant to sound peaceful, and is quite unsettling at times. “Grass” contains more light beats, which more sound like a clock ticking, along with very creepy pads and textures that slowly change over time. “Mold” contains more clipped vocal samples, some piano-like rhythms, and a soft bassline to help keep the song going. “Curtains” is one of my personal favorites, as though a vibe-like melody continues throughout the almost 9 minute piece, rarely changing at all, the minimalism of the track has a hypnotic effect on the listener, putting him or her into a trance-like state for a short while. “Circles” contains more soft beats over some tense string pads and electric piano lines, whereas “Weathered Stone” contains some harder beats over some very soft and peaceful ambient textures. “Tree” is, quite simply, one of the most unsettling and disturbing tracks on the album. The textures are unsettling and some as though they will collapse at any moment, and as the layers get thicker and thicker, the sound becomes more and more tense, with not a whole lot of room to breathe. Very intense. “Domino” contains more minimalistic vibe melodies, which will put the listener back into the trance state that “Curtains” contained, and “White Blur 1” ends the first disc of the album out with creepy wind chimes and rumbling synth textures, as well as occasional distorted vocal samples.
Disc 2 begins with “Blue Calx”, which contains the clock-ticking beats, watery synths, and beautifully constructed pads. Though “Rhubarb” still beats this track by a long shot, this is nevertheless a wonderful track that leaves me at a loss for words. “Parallel Stripes” is an 8-minute drone piece that slowly evolves through different melodies and harmonies throughout. Strangely enough, this track is featured in a scene in the Julia Roberts movie “Eat Pray Love”, and the first time I heard it used in the film, I thought the alarm on my iHome in my bedroom went off, when really, it was the film itself. Kind of a strange track to fit into such a film, but for that particular scene, it worked, which just goes to show that Aphex Twin’s compositions can work in different medias. “Shiny Metal Rods” is one of the few beat-driven tracks on the album, containing metallic-sounding industrial techno beats that aren’t hard-hitting like some of Aphex Twin’s sounds (i.e. “Ventolin”), but if listening to the album while trying to sleep, this could wake many listeners up due to the amount of stuff that is going on. “Grey Stripe” is, well, closer along the lines to Lustmord’s sound design than anything else. It’s not terribly dark, but not melodic either, and nor is it drone. Rather, this is a fantastically put together string of sound design that sounds closer to the sounds of a spaceship, an alien abduction, or just an alien world in general. Starting with wind-like sounds drenched in a beautiful reverb, later on, the quirky arpeggios of the mothership start to chime in, and at times, it even sounds a bit like birds chirping, before it morphs into something totally different. Even the last 45 seconds contain the most variety of sound effects, which makes this a stand-out track on its own. “Z Twig” is a short vignette of beautiful arpeggios wrapped in reverb and delay, and sounds more like the B-side of a Boards of Canada album. “Windowsill” remains me a lot of Native American or tribal rhythms, from the sounds of a flute to the taps of ritualistic sounding drums. It is quite a different sounding track from the rest of the album, but still is close to the whole Brian Eno-inspired sound of the album. “Stone In Focus” is yet again a beautifully melancholic composition that, unfortunately, cannot be found in most versions of the album today. The only way anyone can get it, for now, is buying a copy of the compilation album, “Excursions in Ambience: The Third Dimension”. However, it was available on a limited edition vinyl and cassette of the album when it was first sold. If anyone is lucky enough to come across one of these limited-edition albums on Craigslist or eBay, it’d be great to get just for this track alone. The soft, distant beats and icy pads are just wonderful, and either are at odds with or exceed “Rhubarb”. “Hexagon” is yet another beat-driven track, which also contains some beautiful melodies within, which itself sound as oriental as “Cliffs”. “Lichen” is a beautiful soundscape similar to “Stone In Focus”, containing flute melodies and lush pads, while also reminiscent of a cabin in the woods, in wintertime, when snow is falling or is on the ground. A very beautiful image that compliments the song nicely. “Spots” is a disturbingly dark soundscape full of vocal-like sounds drenched in a cathedral reverb, in which sounds swell in and out of the mix, so the listener is on their toes the entire time, not knowing what is going to happen next. “Tassels” is a sci-fi like noisy soundscape, full of electronic alien noises and sounds enveloped in a kind of Doppler-effect, which sounds like spaceships flying by the listener. “White Blur 2”, the longest track on the entire album, running over 11 minutes long, is another personal favorite of mine, as it starts with strange monster-like sounds before going into a creepy melody of microtones. There is even a bit of shock value at one point, where a rush of white noise suddenly intrudes the mix. Creepy, child-like sounds of laughter also are prevalent in the mix, creating a feeling of uncertainty. Even with the spacious reverb, the mix sounds as though the listener is in a closed room, where he or she does not know just who or what is in the room. Each sound is new and surprising, and if the listener is not listening intently or closely, the soundscape can become intense very quickly. A horror film in audible form. Finally, the album ends with “Matchsticks”, a sad-sounding orchestral-like piece of synthesized strings that sound like the sun rising up, or like an extended death-scene sequence. Then, suddenly in the middle of the dense, tense strings, the music ends, and so does the album.
Overall, “Selected Ambient Works Volume II” is one of the best albums Aphex Twin has ever made, as well as one of the greatest ambient albums ever composed. Though Aphex Twin has definitely put out some greater albums, such as the first “Selected Ambient Works 85-92”, “…I Care Because You Do”, “Richard D. James Album”, or the “pop” singles “Come To Daddy” and “Windowlicker”, this is one of the last and one of the only “true” ambient albums that Aphex created. I favor this album very highly because it was one of the first albums I ever owned that was “ambient”, “drone”, or “dark ambient”, and if it weren’t for Aphex Twin and this album, I probably wouldn’t have discovered much of the experimental electronic music that I listen to daily. Luckily, this album changed the way I looked at music at the time, and opened up a new world for me that I had never known existed. The tracks here are at times beautiful and fragile like life, but other times, the intense feeling of uncertainty and disturbing madness prevails heavily, just as it does in regular life. As far disconnected as this album is to commercial, mainstream music, it is still close to home with the feelings that it produces in listeners. One of the greatest albums I have ever come across, and I highly recommend every person in the world to take a listen to this album in its entirety. Even if you’re not into ambient or electronic music in general, you will find a part of yourself trapped in the melodies and soundscapes of this album somewhere, and who knows, you may find me still trapped in the album as well, just as I was almost 6 years ago. Highly recommended listening.
Album: Selected Ambient Works Volume II
Artist: Aphex Twin
Genre: Dark ambient/drone/electronic
Released in 1994 by Warp Records
Available at all major retailers!