Friday, February 08, 2008

Surf's Up

Polygon Window - If It Really Is Me
Polygon Window - Quoth (Wooden Thump Mix)
Soft Ballet - Sand Lowe (The Polygon Window Remix)

Though I reserve the right to change my mind whenever I feel like it, today, Polygon Window is my favourite of Richard D. James's many musical aliases. 'Surfing On Sine Waves' is a phenomenal album, and I get vexed when I read Aphex FAQ's where he says there's another entire album's worth of material from the Polygon Window sessions that he can't be arsed to release. "Probably when I'm dead, they'll find it," he morbidly stated. When Warp came to remaster and rerelease 'SOSW' to celebrate the opening of their US office in 2001, the label asked Richard for some extra tracks to make it special. He obliged, although the story goes that he just gave them the first two tracks from the DAT of unreleased Polygon Window material. He's a wilful bugger, but I guess that's why we all love him and why there is so much webspace given over to discussing the finer points of his music and myth.

'SOSW' has a certain mood, depth and ambience that makes it totally unique. His use of delays, effects and homemade synths meant it sounded like nowt else on the planet. Apparently it was recorded between 1986 and 1989, which makes it even more staggering, as he was still a teenager, working from his own blueprint for electronic music, though he was definitely influenced by electro and early techno recordings by the likes of Kraftwerk and Cybotron. I was (still am) completely mesmerised by the album when I first bought it, listening to it over and over again, stoned off my face on Mark's snorkel bong in my tiny box room in Halls. It's moody and as magnificently brooding as the granite cliffs of Cornwall that informed all RDJ's early output. In fact, more so than any of his other albums, I think it's this one that most evokes the Cornish landscape and sea. Perhaps it's just that sepia-tinged cover image of Porthtowan beach, but there's more to it than that I'm sure. I've got Cornish roots, and 'SOSW' always transports me back to there - specifically, to the Lizard peninsula where I spent so much time as a child, with its ancient fern-packed hedgerows; the stark and often desolate vistas, coloured purple, brown and grey; the crumbling towers of the abandoned tin mines; the futuristic alienness of the Goonhilly Earth Station; the seemingly neverending beach at Kennack Sands... I always believed there was mystery lurking around every corner, and 'SOSW' is the soundtrack to this magical time and place.

'SOSW' was the first artist album in Warp's 'Artifical Intelligence' series, and probably the only one to sample Julie Andrews, blending tweaking acid, soothing synth sounds and old school TR606 drums. It's hard to pinpoint a favourite track, as it's the album as a whole that I love, though 'Quoth' (also released as a single) is a stunning demonstration of powerhouse drum programming. Unusually structured and allegedly featuring sounds Richard sampled from his job as a tunnel digger, 'Quoth' is a jackhammering monster of a tune. I also love 'If It Really Is Me', with it's beautifully simple piano melody and sampled snatches of dialogue. Simply gorgeous - and bizarrely pops on the occasional generic Ibiza 'chill-out' classics album. Very un-Aphex. It's perhaps not surprising that these two tracks stand out - legend has it that Richard spilt orange juice on the master tapes containing 'Quoth' and 'IIRIM', and they had to be partially rerecorded. Perhaps this story is really a cover for the fact that they were brand new tracks, not recorded during the 86-89 sessions. As always, I would encourage those of you who don't already, to go out and purchase this album. I was happy to buy the remastered 2001 version of the CD, to accompany the original CD and luvverly clear vinyl, gatefold edition already nestling in my collection. How many different formats I own of a particular record is usually a pretty good guide of how much I like it. I like this one an awful lot.

I'm posting 'If It Really Is Me', the slightly tweaked 'Wooden Thump Mix' of 'Quoth' from the single release, along with a remix RDJ did under the Polygon Window alias for the Japanese industrial synthpop outfit Soft Ballet. I hadn't come across this remix until recently, when a kind soul sent me an mp3 of it. It was taken from an album of remixes of Soft Ballet tracks entitled 'Twist & Turn'. Released in 1994, it also featured remixes from Orbital, Higher Intelligence Agency, Adamski, Pop Will Eat Itself and EMF. The Polygon Window remix was the last thing Richard ever recorded under the pseudonym, though to me, it sounds closer to his material of the same period under the Aphex Twin name - the drums in particular are very reminiscent of 'On'. Anyway, it's a brilliant remix, weaving atmospheric synths and buried vocal samples in and out of the thunking industrial drums.

Buy 'Surfing On Sine Waves' from Warpmart
Search eBay for Polygon Window
Polygon Window discography