Aphex Twin’s “Xtal” opens unassumingly. There is no long intro or buildup to some grand unveiling of a complex musical idea; instead, the song immediately introduces its main theme, a lovely syncopated chord progression, alongside a typical hi-hat rhythm, then bringing in other elements – kick drum, ethereal female vocal sample, more drum hits. Within the first minute or so, you’ve heard almost everything in the song’s palette.
Alright, let me be honest: as you’ve probably already noticed, I have a lot of trouble writing about music. I have great admiration for people that can communicate the effect well-composed music has on them, because I constantly find myself struggling to explain it in a way that isn’t stilted and ridiculous. In case the rest of my attempt here falls flat, I’d like you to just remember this much: “Xtal” is the first track on Aphex Twin’s debut album (Selected Ambient Works 85-92) which I consider one of the most important albums in electronic music history by a very safe margin. It’s a wonderful, weirdly majestic song, and it changed my damn life.
Xtal’s melodies toe the lie between celebration and melancholy so carefully that it seems destined to tip and fall, but it never does.
That’s an absurd thing to say, especially about a piece of music I spent a paragraph trying to describe as blandly as possible. Time has not been generous to the track in a strict technical sense, either. The mixing choices are bizarre by modern standards, with that kick booming out of control and other sounds that get muffled or lost in space as the track pushes forward. But that’s what’s so mesmerizing about Xtal: it combines a few elements with a simple structure and creates something that seems to shimmer each time you listen to it, no matter what idiosyncrasies may surface as it ages.
I did not hear Xtal when it was first released in 1992. I was three years old at the time and was much more interested in Super Mario Bros. and the video game adaptation of Willow. It wasn’t until about fifteen years later as a freshman in college, already many years deep into a fascination with precisely two musical branches: metal and Radiohead. A friend played the track for me as an introduction to electronic music, a genre I had previously expressed little care for (the irony of being disinterested in electronic music while being enamored with Kid A was lost on me at the time).
It wasn’t long before I had given up trying to learn the guitar solos from Megadeth songs in favor of trying to learn MIDI sequencing. I’ve spent the past five or six years completely immersed in all different kinds of electronic music as both listener and amateur producer. I think my obsession with the diversity of sounds on display has overflowed into a greater appreciation for all different styles of music these days, as well, and I owe much of this reinvigorated interest in all things musical to Xtal.
As much as I’d like to lay claim to it as my own, Xtal is actually a whole lot of beginnings for a whole lot of people. For Richard D. James (alias Aphex Twin), it marked the start of a career that would ultimately land him a place among the absolute elite. His experimentation with sounds and structures – which work in ways that were previously unimagined – led to him being considered a modern musical pioneer and marvel. He was certainly not alone in his exploration of the electro-symphonic frontier (it is a field crowded with incredible talent), but James became the poster boy for many of the amazing developments that occurred in genres like ambient, techno and IDM in the 1990s.
Just as important, though, is the way both Xtal and Selected Ambient Works 85-92 marked a beginning for a whole new generation of producers and listeners. James had released some EPs prior to it, but SAW 85-92 became a critical and commercial success of uncommon proportion and was an introduction to the scene for millions. As interesting as my personal interest story with Xtal may be, it’s one that’s likely been replicated thousands and thousands of times over the past two decades.
I don’t think it’s too tough to hear why. The track has a naturally warm and welcoming quality and bursts into a sort of euphoria after a minute of laying out the tools at its disposal. Its melodies toe the lie between celebration and melancholy so carefully that it seems destined to tip and fall, but it never does. It’s a track that seems strangely prescient, almost as if it’s intentionally hinting at so many of the different developments and experiences the field of electronic music would undergo in the years after the album’s release.
I imagine a lot of beginnings are this way. You can’t quite understand their importance until much later, and when you try it comes out as romantic and hyperbolic. Many beginnings might only have hints of whatever incredible stuff will come later, which is part of what makes them so enchanting. Xtal is like this, but paradoxically, it’s also able to completely encapsulate what makes Aphex Twin’s career and a whole style of music so remarkable. It’s at once a hint of the music’s potential and an absolute expression of it – I have no idea how the hell this is possible. Xtal is five minutes of man-made magic, and that is likely as close as I will ever get to figuring it out.
Follow Adam Boffa on Twitter @ambinate.