Aphex Twin : Warped Back Into England (1993-1995)

As previously seen in our post about the first part of The Aphex Twin's career, the releases on R&S had given him a logo, and a reputation : forward-thinking techno artist. His work was bound to catch the attention of the people from Warp.

After a first compilation ("Pioneers Of The Hypnotic Groove"), and the success of LFO's first album, the Shieffield label had decided to release some more electronic long playing albums from UK artists. And they had given a name to this serie : Artificial Intelligence.
Meant to push further their idea of Electronic Listening Music (as opposed to the "dancing" one), this serie started with an eponymous compilation : (Artificial Intelligence) - Electronic Listening Music From Warp
They logically asked the Corwall activists of Rephlex to contribute (just like the B12 and Black Dog crews). So Richard D. James participated to this compilation, as The Dice Man (quoting The Aphex Twin, as an influence in the booklet ;-)
The design was by The Designer Republic, using 3D images from Phil Wolstenholme.

This was a turning point : beyond the perspective of a better contract than with R&S, it was also a chance to participate to something different : the birth of Electronica, a new vision of electronic music. And this happened at home, in the UK!

So Richard D. James signed with Warp, and the first releases he did, early 1993, were under his Polygon Window alias. (In fact, RDJ was still under contract at the time of release, thus the choice of using his Polygon Window identity.)
It started with the heavy techno industrial EP, "Quoth", soon folllowed by an album, "Surfing On Sine Waves", much more experimental and downtempo. 

On a visual point of view, the sleeves where a lot different than those on R&S  : they were created by The Designer Republic, and participated to the graphic continuity they were building for the Artificial Intelligence serie. More refined, using extensively Ocr-B as the typographic expression of a polished techno feel (as opposed to Ocr-A, or to the many "in-you-face" technological typefaces used everywhere).


It was a strong departure from the usual visual elements of the Techno culture : Futuristic tone, fractal images Cyberpunk imagery and language, and all these easy thematics. TDR was aiming at the next level.
For example, the extended single  "Quoth" had a beautiful photography as the centrepiece of its artwork, and it showed James running in stairs looking like those of the London Tube. No robots, no computers, no machines, but an artist, escaping the easy categorization as much as the photographer's focus.
Vinyl LP (Front)

Vinyl LP (Back)

Gatefold (Inside)
CD booklet (inside)
The choice of a landscape image (by Samantha Robinson) for the album cover of "Surfin On Sine Waves" was even more meaningfull. First, it was the genre of image usually used by contemporary music artists. 
Second, it talked about the artist's origins (the beaches of Cornwall).
And third, it had a very mysterious feel : the tiny silhouette surfing had to be someone, someone that was surfing THERE, in England, not in Ibiza, or any exotic place.
It expressed visually that It was the work of an unconventional music artist, not just a party-oriented music maker, and that this artist was English!

This question of nationality was important : people from Warp wanted to prove that the next step of electronic music was now created right here, not in the US, not even in the cosmopolitan city of London. It was "imported from Shieffield", and "Made in Cornwall".
With the concept of Intelligent Dance Music, Warp was clearly cutting the ombilic with the first wave of House, that was influenced by America (Chicago, New York, etc).

They were also dissociating themselves from the second one, the "Continental explosion" of 1990. While Belgium reigned on Techno-house, while Germany was inventing Techno-trance and Hard Techno, and Netherland exploring Hardcore and gabber, UK had to stand for something different. For Warp, it was Electronica.

As a matter of fact, this clearly provided an additional reason for Aphex Twin's move back to UK :  leaving a continental dance music label, R&S, for a proud English one, Warp, heralding refined electronic music, far beyond the narrow limits of club culture.


But this was Polygon Window.
And as "The Aphex Twin", Richard James had a very different visual identity, already well established in people's mind through a strong symbol, and a logotype. So the next releases under this alias, "On", and "On Remixes" had to build on these elements.




But the graphic designers did it with a logically more refined style, making it the central piece of a textured painting. The graphic novel artist Bill Sienkiewicz can be seen as an influence for these images, but anyway, the work of Dan Parkes had a strong personality, and hit the market like a bomb. 

The artistic ambition of the cover was reminding of the days of Factory Records and of the work of Peter Saville, and produced an intense feeling of creative madness. It expressed the contradictory aspects of a music that ranged from intensely melodic to agressively industrial. 



It has to be noted that, as much as the evident quality of these music pieces, the use of gatefold sleeves and limited editions schemes certainly contributed to the success of these releases. Even now, the vinyl editions are quite expensive to get!




The release of Selected Ambient Works Volume II, in 1994, also offered a strong improvement compared to SAW I. On a musical point of view, it was an even more conceptual double-LP offering, going further into the pure abstract ambient style.
And just like the previous Warp singles, it was visually focused on the symbol, including it in a deeply textured image. This time the Aphex Twin logotype was also used (first time since "Xylem Tube"), but in a much more cryptic evolution than on R&S. The design of the ensemble is credited to Prototype 21 (who created the original AFX logo).
 The lack of any tracklisiting and the use of a code (the intriguing circular shapes) also reinforced the mystery and the impact of the release. In fact, the "pies" were a code to find the name of the tracks through the images provided inside (pictures that were of course done by RDJ). 
The clue to decipher the ensemble was the presence of "Blue Calx" written in the image corresponding to a track that was already known as indeed being titled "Blue Calx", thanx to its appearance on the ART compilation from 1992...
A very smart idea, that allowed the listener to imagine their own track title using the music, the images, and their own imagination! And if you check on the Internet, you might find a list of track name that is now commonly accepted for this album, and it has been created by the listeners and fans themselves!








Then came a new single, in 1995, "Ventolin EP", followed by a set of remixes ("Ventolin Remixes EP"). The style was the same, maybe with an even darker tone. The title song was inspired by the famous medication for asthmatic people : Richard being one of them, he wanted to express the feelings he experienced during his crisis, and the side effects of the use of Ventolin (like severe tinnitus, thus the high tones used in the track).

Ventolin EP (Gatefold Front)
The artworks were built on this, and the use of spooky illustrations inspired by medical drawing from the Renaissance. These illustrations were again from Dan Parkes, and the graphic design by The Designers Republic. 
Ventolin EP (Gatefold inside,Right)

Ventolin EP (Gatefold inside, Left)

Ventolin EP (Gatefold Back)



There again, a gatefold sleeve was enhancing the value of the object, offering some exclusive artworks inside.


In the meantime, RDJ released two more Analog Bubblebath on Rephlex, the label he co-founded with Grant Wilson-Claridge.
Analog Bubblebath 3, in 1993 was an excellent release, but its artwork was more of a joke idea : the CD was completely blank, and wrapped in a bubble bag, with a laconic sticker afixed on it. Witty, but also a clearly Rephlexian statement : "we love ideas, we have lots of talent, but we hate being too serious about marketing".
This refusal for industry conventions has the caveate of preventing them from having any visual identity, not to mention any continuity, and even today, the visuals and graphic design aspects remains the weak spot of Rephlex...
Proof of that being the triviality of the Analog Bubblebath 4 sleeve design, in 1994 : another good release, but visualised with a mundane low-definition video image, and a boring techno-ish graphic design for the back cover.
Even the use of the Aphex Twin symbol was just adding some confusion, as it suggested AFX and Aphex Twin were equivalent, while the visual universes were completely different...

All in All, none of those AFX releases had such graphically interesting artworks as the Aphex Twin ones. 



But after two years at Warp, the success of Aphex Twin had gone global.
Critics had acclaimed SAW II as a groundbreaking piece, On and Ventolin had became instant classics, and America had discovered him via a distribution deal with Sire Records. In 1995, Aphex Twin was one of the most (if not THE most) famous artist of electronic music, and the "fer de lance" of the Warp roaster.
This was certainly due to the artistic liberty they granted him, but the investment made into creating some visual universe for his works must has certainly been a key element.

Even if Richard would still release works under some alternative aliases, he had to (or decided to) assume stardom as The Aphex Twin. But in his own twisted way...
(To be continued)

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