We're living in an era of musical miracles, with resurrections of messianic careers happening seemingly every few months. Ever since Axl Rose finally got Chinese Democracy out of his system in 2008 following a decade-and-a-half delay, My Bloody Valentine, David Bowie, Daft Punk, D'Angelo, Aphex Twin, and other artists who took long, ominous breaks from the public spotlight have released albums. The reviews for this material, in general, have been surprisingly good; even if that weren't the case, fans would celebrate the revelation that their heroes, it turns out, never really retired.
In fact, look closely at many of the return stories and the notion of retirement seems laughable. Especially in the cases of what are essentially one-person acts, the quiet years were actually filled with lots of in-studio noise. In the decades since 1991's Loveless, My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields repeatedly started the recording process but ended up scrapping the material. D'Angelo, working on the follow-up to 2001's Voodoo, reportedly had enough new music that he could have released a record's worth six to 10 years ago. Richard D. James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin, has said that in the time since 2001's Drukqs, he logged hundreds of tracks and at least 10 albums of music.
So for artists who go reclusive, work ethic doesn't seem to be a big problem. Perfectionism often is, though: D'Angelo was apparently only able to get his album out when faced with a iron-clad deadline, and Shields has been compared to Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who toiled for decades over Smile to get it exactly right. Once artists return after a long time away, it's rarely akin to a faucet being turned back on. Instead, it's one drip, followed by another long pause, and then maybe another drip. Shields has said he wants to put out a follow-up EP to 2013's acclaimed MBV, but then again, for seven years Axl Rose has been talking about having a Chinese Democracy follow-up mostly recorded. For musicians like them, the instinctive worry is that the same forces that made them go silent once could strike again.
The fascinating exception to the pattern may turn out to be Aphex Twin, the electronica iconoclast whose '90s experiments in beatmaking and ambient music influenced everyone from Radiohead to Kanye West to Skrillex. In contrast to the tortured hiatus stories of Shields & co., James's public statements about 2014's Syro came with shockingly little angst. He'd been making music but not releasing it for more than a decade, he said, because releasing music is a chore, and he wasn't sure that the public even cared about him anymore. It was a Kickstarter campaign from fans that made him realize there was still an appetite for Aphex Twin, so he grabbed the "poppiest" of the unreleased albums in his personal collection and put it into the world.
That was five months ago, and now, in another miracle, there's more Aphex Twin music. As is typical for someone who announced his return to music via hacker protocols, the press material around the new Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2 EP is less than illuminating, so we don't yet know whether it was recorded before or after Syro's release (nor do we know where pt1 is). But in any case, it offers another hint that Aphex may buck the resurrected-artist trend—that his time away wasn't, in fact, caused by a pathological fixation on quality control, and there may well be lots of good music to come.
Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2, by the way, is in fact good. Anyone who’s in the market for new music that’s serene enough to play in the background while working but interesting enough to reward a close listen should check it out. Per its title, James has served up 28 minutes of pianos, drums, and other items you might find in a high-school band room acting in ways that seem not-quite-human—there's a preciseness, and also a glitchiness, that only a robot could be responsible for.
In the context of Aphex Twin's career, the songs are unusually straightforward and simple—basically, it's a collection of hip-hop beats and neoclassical interludes—though they do possess James's trademark playfulness and a host of how-the-hell-did-he-think-of-that moments. (My current favorite track is “DISKHAT4,” which sounds a bit like The Exorcist theme performed with kitchenware.) The EP won't melt brains like the best Aphex releases have, but at the very least it should trigger a grin or two for what it represents: hope that an iconic entertainer could take break and then have a second-phase career nearly as vibrant as his first.