In some ways, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, which turns 25 years old today (7 March 1994), is the most important album of the 1990s.
Released as the Eurodance-fuelled early 90s made way for the ‘lager, tits and bad speed’ pomp of Britpop – that week’s UK Top 10 featured 2 Unlimited, Primal Scream, Ace of Base and Reel 2 Real, for example – Richard D James’ second collection of ambient tracks is a more accomplished selection than 85-92 (not surprising, given that some of the latter’s tracks were recorded when he was a teen).
Speaking to The Face magazine’s David Toop in 1994, James described the album as “like standing in a power station on acid […] if you just stand in the middle of a really massive one, you get a really weird presence and you’ve got that hum. You just feel electricity around you. That’s totally dreamlike for me. It’s just like a right strange dimension”.
This, coupled with James’ penchant for lucid dreaming, imbues the album with a ethereal, otherworldly quality, akin to hearing a doorbell go off at three AM (is there someone at the door, or did I just imagine it..?), or the eerie silence of a party that has gone on waaaay too long.
“I’d go to sleep in my studio. I’d go to sleep for ten minutes and write three tracks – only small segments, not l00 percent finished tracks. I’d wake up and I’d only been asleep for ten minutes. That’s quite mental,” James told The Face.
“I vary the way I do it, dreaming either I’m in my studio, entirely the way it is, or all kinds of variations. The hardest thing is getting the sounds the same. It’s never the same. It doesn’t really come close to it.
“When you have a nightmare or a weird dream, you wake up and tell someone about it and it sounds really shit. It’s the same for sounds, roughly. When I imagine sounds, they are in dream form. As you get better at doing it, you can get closer and closer to the actual sounds.”
Noticeably, only one track on the album is actually named – Blue Calx – which opens CD2, offering one of the album’s calmer moments, while others contain a haunting quality that stays with the listener long after the album has concluded.
The discordant progression on CD1 Track 2 always reminds me of the moment the toys come to life in Akira for some reason, while CD2 Track 9, with its whispered vocals is just terrifying. And maybe that’s the point.
Centuries from now, when alien historians come to paint a picture of humankind in the final decade of the second millennium, they would be well advised to have a copy of Selected Ambient Works Volume II with them.
It would be a damn sight more appropriate than Ace of Base, that’s for sure.