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Cover Versions: The many masks behind the mask that is Aphex Twin

"Come To Daddy," Aphex Twin, 1997. Image by Chris Cunningham.

BY MIN CHEN


BBC Radio’s recent documentary,
The Cult of Aphex Twin, presented by John Doran, doesn’t exactly untangle the mystery of its elusive subject, the Cornwall-based electronic producer with an abundance of aliases to match his prolific output. And perhaps that’s the point. For years, inscrutability—more than any emblem or his own face—has been Richard D. James’ calling card and in turn, the hallmark of said-cult.

The Aphex Twin logo, unveiled on the cover of his 1992 debut release, Selected Ambient Works 85–92, was as much representation as obfuscation. Add to that the producer’s penchant for bewildering track names (some made up and some culled from Cornish vernacular) that on 1994’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, at least, had to be decoded with pie charts, mystique is made.

Last year, while revealing the developmental drawings and processes behind the creation of the brand in 1991, designer Paul Nicholson divulged his then-plan to further mutate the logo with each of its appearance. “From one release to the next, the change would be subtle,” he wrote. “But over a course of years, the logo would become unrecognizable from its inception.” Plainly, clarification has never been anyone’s intention here.

Even when James chose to unmask himself—first on 1995’s …I Care Because You Do, then on the Chris Cunningham-directed videos for “Windowlicker” and “Come To Daddy”—the upshot was baffling and bloody-minded, bordering on pure terrifying. This reveal was a reaction to the anonymity embedded in the aesthetic of electronic music production (James in 2001: “The thing in techno you weren’t supposed to do was to be recognized and stuff. The sort of unwritten rule was that you can’t put your face on the sleeve”), but according to him, “I got carried away.”

“Windowlicker,” 1999, and Richard D. James Album, 1996, by Aphex Twin.
Video for “Come To Daddy” by Aphex Twin, 1997, directed by Chris Cunningham.

In his videos and sleeves in the late ’90s, James’ face was morphed and contorted, multiplied and applied onto the bodies of children and bikini-clad models. The flood of faces/masks overwhelmed and terrorized in quantity and monstrosity. That grinning grotesquerie is, of course, deliberate: “When you see people in magazines, you can tell they’re thinking, ‘OK, I know I’m not really good-looking, but they’re going to make me good-looking in this photo,’” James explained to The Face in 2001. “So making myself look ugly is just the opposite of that. It’s just a reaction to that fantasy world that celebrities seem to live in.”

The effect, though, is yet another fantasy world or better yet, an uncanny valley, populated solely by grimacing beings created in and for his image. You don’t even have to squint to spot the cult-likeness.

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