BY CHRISTOPHER DORICK
RELEASED: FEBRUARY 12, 1992
GENRES: AMBIENT TECHNO
Quick take: Aphex Twin’s debut is certainly not what most people would consider ambient. There is, after all, a lot more depth than ‘traditional’ ambient music. However, that doesn’t mean Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (SAW) falls anywhere short of spectacular. Make no joke, this album is objectively the granddaddy of a lot of IDM today, just simplified. Most tracks on SAW almost seem to be built the same way — introduce the base layer, then slowly and deliberately add layer upon layer, lingering on sounds that offer a specifically peculiar feeling.
One of the biggest hints that SAW was just the tip of the iceberg for what Aphex Twin could offer was his ability to transform tired house patterns into ambient-dance masterpieces. Several tracks on SAW are built on the base of fairly generic beats, but blossom into concise, ethereal pulsations that leave the listener confused as to whether they should be listening on their couch at 10 p.m. on a weeknight or at 4 a.m. in an underground club in Berlin. If you have listened to any of Aphex Twin’s later work, it’s easy to see just how different this album is from anything else in Richard D. James’ canon. SAW has glimpses of the outdoor-factory-in-the-pouring-rain and cavernous vibe that Aphex Twin would become synonymous with in later years, but for the most part, his debut keeps this sound in the shadows.
SAW had its 25th anniversary earlier this year, and it does sound a bit dated. But certainly not in a bad way. More in the way you feel upon first reading that letter you’d written in 9th grade to future you. This album predates state of the art electronic music production tools, and therefore Aphex Twin had to work with what was available at the time. The result is a sample-minimal, drum heavy album that manages to blow minds while still maintaining a soft, non-aggressive, and inviting sensation.