Richard D. James’ longstanding Aphex Twin project surfs the crest between experimental and groovy better than anyone else out there. He’s one of the world’s greatest living composers. James’ songs probably average out around 150 BPM, which is utter bananas. The Aphex Twin catalog is a far-reaching voyage of computer synthesis of every imaginable sort, laden with hacked and glitched drum machines and synthesizers, and samples that kind of make artificial voices sound utterly adorable.
Naturally, covering his extremely non-human music seems like an impossible task. Even deciding which instruments or pieces of “new” gear to choose to emulate James’ sonic landscapes from the mid-’90s seems daunting. Luckily though, for every daunting task, there are inspired, masochistic individuals who will take on the challenge. Not me, though, no sir, I’m just here to compile a list of them so I can comment on them from the bleachers.
These versions really do challenge and extrapolate on what a cover can, and should, be. They unearth an incredibly emotive palette of chords and tone cycles that, for many listeners, may exist too far beneath the electronic surface of James’ music to reach their hearts. It’s interesting to hear these songs in the new context of “performance.”
In my opinion, the majority of covers these days never move beyond the low-hanging formulaic fruit of indie-rock takes on ’70s pop hits, hip-hop songs done by singer-songwriters, and techno reworks of commercial radio jams. It’s also just really refreshing to hear a wide variety of musicians tackle songs that I would assume were un-coverable.
Ben Wallace — “Alberto Balsalm”
For fans of: sipping cocktails in the Caribbean
Ben Wallace arranged a steel drum version of the song “Alberto Balsalm” for the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. The steel drums do a great job of emulating the long release of the synths in the original track. It’s interesting to see how many different tones the performers can coax out of the steel drums. I feel they really emphasize the strength of the melodies in the song.
A.G. Cook — “Windowlicker”
For fans of: DJing alien raves
This is a very faithful cover. A. G. Cook did a great job of breaking down one of the most popular Aphex Twin tunes ever and putting it back together piece by piece, even using what sounds like multiple vocalists to reenact what was probably just James’ own vocals pitch-shifted. So much of what makes James’ music great is its ethereal quality, whether it’s the bent synth lines, the collage of tonal timbres, a synth pad washing in from the background, or some percussive element delayed so that it feels like it snakes through the entire song. The best thing about A.G. Cook’s cover, though, is that it sounds like a human made it. It’s amazing sometimes how people can use synthesizers to make music on both faraway ends of the cyborg spectrum.
Bell Orchestre — “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball”
For fans of: orchestral arrangements, but not “classical” music, per se
Bell Orchestre creates what is very much an interpreted version of the famous percussion-intense anthem, “Bucephalus Bounding Ball.” It lies definitively in the real world as opposed to the computer processed world James originally created for the track. I find the brass section swells that come in at 1:49 to be especially pleasing, and the bouncing ball effect is particularly well done at the end. All in all, you really feel the “liveness” of this recording. Like everything Bell Orchestre did as a project, this recording is joyous and exciting — musicians playing these parts like musicians do.
Alarm Will Sound — “Cock/Ver10”
For fans of: technically precise, emotionally loose music
Alarm Will Sound actually wrote an entire album of orchestral Aphex Twin covers. I’ve chosen one of my favorites, but if you’re interested, check out their album, Acoustica. The original track features an unrelenting onslaught of breakbeat drums punctuated by a synth chord progression every now and then. You wouldn’t think it’d work well in an orchestral context, but they certainly pull it off with flying colors. Again, here it’s the horns that swell in to represent those big synth patches. Their album as a whole is a great tool to learn about electronic beat-driven music, because you can hear how all of the melodic elements come together, without being distracted by those crazy intense drum patterns that Aphex Twin throws at your face at high speeds. Also, nobody would ever compose ensemble music like this, so it’s kind of interesting on that level, as well.
The Bad Plus — “Flim”
For fans of: old school instruments with new school approach.
The original song is essentially composed like it’s written for a trio anyway, so it’s not a stretch to imagine how the experimental jazz group The Bad Plus would cover this song. I really enjoy how they pair the bass with the top-line melody. Aphex Twin’s melodic writing is so strong here — it’s one of the moments in his oeuvre that show his deep capacity for harmonic knowhow, and the cover certainly extracts that in a big way. The version above is live, because it’s more interesting to watch the elements come together in the video, but take a listen to the studio version for its production focus. There, you can really pay attention to the drumming, which of course, reads more like an instrumental solo than your standard “beat.”
The Nimoys — “Funny Little Man”
For fans of: terrible music.
I really don’t like a capella. This song did not convince me to feel otherwise.
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