Why Does Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th Sound So Distinctive?

What makes a song—like Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th—instantly recognisable as special?

Alright, yeah — it’s subjective. But you’d be hard-pressed not to find something special in the piece embedded below.

There’s a lot to be said about Aphex Twin. I’m not going to try to say it all now, or even pretend I understand the enigma. But Avril 14th? There’s just something about it.

Nestled between acid house and jungle on Drukqs, you have this short, fragile, melancholic gem.

This song’s the musical equivalent of staring out the window just as the rain starts to fall,  your gaze lingering a while longer to watch it hit the ground — fixated, like it’s something you’ve never seen before.

It’s enchanting in its simplicity — it captures an elusive feeling, freezes the listener — yet feels like you’re hearing lifetimes. Or something like that.

I can imagine it played as an 18th-century concerto: picture a man seated at a piano, tail-coat and all, illuminated by spotlight, playing to a large audience seated on red velvet seats; the audience watches intently, silently, from the circle-shaped gallery. Yet, somehow, it fits into an early-2000s electronic album.

Do you ever notice how much more you start to engage with something when you begin writing about it? 

Anyway, you’ll probably recognise this from Kanye West’s ‘Blame Game’. The rapper tried to avoid paying him for it, infamously saying:

It’s not yours, it’s ours, and we’re not even asking you any more.

Uh, the less said about all that the better.

Avril 14th has this weird, interwoven history that is typical of Aphex Twin’s work and career — it was, for example, unexpectedly added to the credits of the idiosyncratic film Four Lions, a satire on British terrorism.

Phil Canning, the music supervisor of the film, said:

I feel the track complements the bittersweet feeling the viewer feels after laughing so hard but seeing the surreal tragedy of it all.

Isn’t that poetic?

While doing some research on this song, Aphex, and the album, I found it funny to see that all the major music sites gave it less-than-positive reviews when it released, using terms such as ‘indecipherable’ and ‘gratuitously weird’. Drukqs came out in 2001 — I was too young to appreciate all of that unfolding. But it’s odd to look back on now, in light of how he’s idolized.

Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th was recorded on a Yamaha acoustic piano modified to play from MIDI input; you can write the ensemble on a computer and then have a real instrument play it. Cool, right?

Scott Wilson, a modern critical music theorist, had this to say:

The result is something that sounds human, but not quite.

This is a familiar theme in a lot of Aphex Twin’s cacophonic-turned-melodic music.

It’s triumphant, vulnerable — but contained, like it’s being played out of a miniature windup music box. It stutters along beautifully, seeming to falter in and out, running on clockwork power, sounding almost choppy in the way it’s pieced together.

And at the end, you want to wind it straight back up. Maybe that’s a small part of it — the blend of inhuman and human appeals to that part of us that heard those now-anachronistic music boxes as a child? I don’t know. Overall, it’s just… warm, nice.

Funnily enough, Aphex Twin/Richard James said in an interview that he doesn’t like people talking about his music — that it’s ‘abstract’, it’s not ‘meant to be talked about’. Oops, sorry Richard. I’ll end here, then.

I probably should’ve posted this on April 14th, shouldn’t I? Oh well.


Thanks for reading! Other music posts here.

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