Aphex Acid

House […] was born not as a distinct genre but as an approach to making ‘dead’ music come alive… [1]

At the end of Xenogoth‘s last “Acid” post, there were some half-baked thoughts on how Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie preludes the Gothic tendencies currently being erased from his Acid Communism by the many articles and blog posts of Jeremy Gilbert.

The ecstatic horror of acid discussed in that post is exemplified by so much music categorised by the name, but this too is a fact lost on many. The organisers of Acid Corbynism at the recent Labour Party conference fringe events The World Transformed seem to have missed it too – a fact made all too clear by the painful video of an Acid House party held alongside their Acid Corbynism event that ended up doing the rounds on Twitter, resembling the kind of corporate Ibiza pastiche that epitomises University Fresher’s Weeks up and down the country.

I decided to flick through Simon Reynolds’ Energy Flash to find some good descriptions of this music that has been continually hollowed out in recent months, and Reynolds – as usual – did not disappoint.

First, some history:

House music, and the Acid House that followed in its wake, took its name from the Houses that became central to gay clubs following the disco explosion of the 1970s. These Houses were home to those excommunicated by society, who would battle it out for pride and trophies in ballrooms, learning how to be and – most importantly – how to survive from their inimitable House mothers.

From the documentary Paris is Burning:

A house… they’re families… for a lot of children that don’t have families… But this is the new meaning of family. The hippies had family and no one thought nothing about it. It wasn’t a question of a man and a woman and children, which we grew up knowing as a family – it’s a question of a group of human beings in a mutual bond…

You know what a house is? I’ll tell you what a house is – a house is a gay street gang.

In Energy Flash, Reynolds goes on to describe how “acid” became so connected with a new house sound that emerged from Chicago and particularly the various monikers of Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard. He cites the latter’s “desolate utopianism” on the afrofuturistic Distant Planet in particular, echoing the pessimistic optimism of so many of the original House communities.

Later, he notes how Washing Machine still exemplifies that most acidic of sounds.

Whilst Acid no doubt took its name from the drug of the same name, popular with clubbers for its longevity, low cost and discreteness, many record labels sought to distance themselves from such open hedonism as drug addiction quickly ravaged communities.

Discussing Phuture’s seminal Acid Tracks, Reynolds writes:

The track became such a sensation at The Music Box that it was known as Ron Hardy’s Acid Trax, a reference to the rumour that the club’s intense, flipped out vibe was caused by the promoters’ putting LSD in the water supply. Subsequently, acid producers have striven to distance the music from hallucinogenics. In early 1988, Tyree told me, ‘It has nothing to do with drugs, it’s just the name that fits because the music’s crazy, it’s weird and wired. But it affects you like a drug takes over. People go into a trance, they just lose it! It makes everything seem so fast, it’s like an upper.’ [2]

The timeline that Reynolds plots over his mammoth 450 pages is astounding. It is the War & Peace of music journalism. I must admit I get a sad feeling reading about the heyday of London’s club culture but he paints a picture that echoes the Acid of Fisher’s Acid Communism, and the thread of desolate utopianism that stretched from the psychedelic Summer of Love to the cybergothic Ccru.

Acieed was more like a secession from normality, a subculture based around what Antonio Melechi characterizes as a kind of collective disappearance. ‘One of the things I found exhilarating at that point,’ confirms Louise Gray, ‘was the idea that there was this whole society of people who lived at night and slept during the day. This carnival idea of turning the ordinary world completely on its head. Like slipping into a parallel universe, almost.’ [3]

It’s hard to imagine that world now. I’m grateful enough to have caught a glimpse of it on one or two scattered weeks in London in 2017 – one of the benefits of being a full-time student that I missed (and now miss again). The desire for those excursions, however, was both personal and collective – individual desires amplified by a collective channelling. Now, even working part time in this unforgiving city, that parallel universe is open only to the few rather than the many. No surprises that the death-spiral of the city’s cyclonic capitalist currents continue erasing any and all portals to this other world, no matter their constitution. The importance of cyberspace reemerges, so central to the post-rave generation, for creating new parallel universes that somehow seem to be sharing the same fate as the clubs before them.

Reynolds’ 1998 prediction of what would become of these fractal dance music cultures that were unfolded outwards from house has unfortunately been vindicated. The never-ending nostalgia machine of dance music compilations continues to proliferate across the UK whilst, across the pond, corporate dance music reigns supreme. What I find interesting about this cultural upheaval, though, is how house has remained constant. I don’t mean the genre itself, but rather that strange entangled ethos of “desolate utopianism”, of familial/r strangeness, of nomadic domesticity, echoing the “eerie” as Fisher defines it in its continuing failures of absence and failures of presence.

This eeriness has led me to revisit some of the more acidic music festering on my hard drive, and there is nowhere better to explore the cyclonic drives of this form of acid than the discography of Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin.

Whenever I think of Acid, I think of one of my favourite descriptive passages from Energy Flash:

…James was no slouch when it came to industrial-strength hardcore. The chemical-formula title and astringent sound of Isoprophlex suggests a nasty corrosive fluid, the kind whose container carries warnings like ‘avoid inhalation’ and ‘irrigate the eye area immediately, then seek medical help.’ [4]

The corrosive nature of Richard D. James’ music will be familiar to even the most casual of dance music fans. The Come to Daddy music video—forever memorable as my first exposure to Aphex Twin when it was regularly featured on Kerrang! in the early ’00s [5]—is exemplary of James’ sonic disintegrations. The video version of the track in particular, with its extended ambient intro, is a mixture of all of RDJ’s sonic modes somehow made pop. The same can be said of Windowlicker too, of course – the kind of grotesque pop you don’t see these days which, it is worth noting, is as outside to us as it is to James himself. How strange that his most successful music videos would base themselves in a London estate and the streets of Los Angeles when his entire vibe was built on the foundational narrative “of an extremely abnormal childhood in the remote coastal county of Cornwall.” [6]

In this way, Aphex Acid is far richer than the qualities most readily associated with Aphex Twin alone. The early instrumental slabs like Isoprophlex aside, much of RDJ’s best-known material creates an acidic sensibility that is in line with Fisher’s, with its complex moods, atmospheres and outsides.

These outsides are, of course, folded inside and mutated. The videos for Come to Daddy and Windowlicker exemplify this again – near-offensive parodies of real-life cultures and communities; the exaggerated imaginings of an outsider, an armchair traveller taking visual detours on an otherwise wholly sonic adventure. The sights seen through James’ caustic window are as ecstatic as they are nightmarish. The video for Windowlicker is perhaps the most disturbing example as RDJ cavorts throughout a fantasy land populated almost entirely by his own, now ubiquitous, mutated mug.

The “desolute utopianism” and philosophies of House previously mentioned are found, most radically, on RDJ’s 2001 album Drukqs—for me, the best Aphex Twin album by a considerable margin. Whilst its title is phonetically suggestive of recreational chemical abuse, albeit mutated as if typed up on a “prepared typewriter” not unlike the prepared pianos James is now well-known for, what is central to the album is, in fact, an eerie domesticity.

This domesticity, central to house ever since Larry Heard’s surreal entangling of distant planets and washing machines, is taken to new extremes by James, who regularly samples his own voice as well as the voices of his immediate family. James’ father Derek, for instance, is famously present on 4 from 1996’s The Richard D. James Album, interrupting James’ sonic experiments (apparently taking place inside a tank – where else?)

Whilst this familial presence may be common to James’ music, it is most explicit on Drukqs. The album’s centrepiece,  Lornaderek, is a recording of an answer phone message left by James’ parents wishing him a happy 28th birthday.

Later, on the track Taking Control, the sound of James’ voice uttering the words “I’m taking control of the drum machine” – processed by vocoder, disintegrating all recognisable markers of vocal subjectivity with a technology originally developed for use in espionage, for reaching out to the outside without betraying one’s own identity – gives way to Lorna shouting “Derek!”, “Richard!” and other names at various intervals. It feels like a song put together during one particularly manic and dysfunctional Christmas Day, folding within itself the electric atmosphere of the family home during the holidays and a childhood desire to creatively escape it.

James’ records are, in this way, records made by a manic agoraphobe – or rather, someone so fixated on the inside that it becomes the only way out, accelerating gear and breakbeats through his own homemade supercollider until he ruptures a way out into the abjectly familiar.

All this is juxtaposed with James’ acidic brand of musique concrète. Whips, a game of squash, heavy chains, a woman’s screams – if these sounds are present or not, I could not tell you with any certainty, but these are the various aural images that come to mind intermittently over the course of the album’s 90+ minutes.

Is there a better aural instantiation of Fishers “inside as a folding of the outside” than this? An album that mixes the sounds of the family home with the sounds of BDSM dungeons, splintered across the temporal wormholes of studio dub and Satie-esque prepared piano compositions? David Toop best describes the warp travel that RDJ’s music has always occasioned for the post-rave generation.

The legend was this: Aphex Twin was a mad inventor from Cornwall who built his own synthesisers. Surfing on sine waves, he would lead a pack of young boffins out of the computer screen glow of their bedrooms into the public domain of clubs, shops and charts, then back in and out of more bedrooms in a feedback loop of infinite dimensions. [7]

Quoting RDJ, Toop notes how he has always liked music that sounds “evil or eerie” and, indeed, on Drukqs especially, RDJ exemplifies an unheimliche acid.

Fisher’s extended thoughts on Freud’s unheimliche – and his unpacking of the weird and the eerie from that too often misused concept – is worth quoting at length here:

Freud’s unheimliche is about the strange within the familiar, the strangely familiar, the familiar as strange – about the way in which the domestic world does not coincide with itself. All of the ambivalences of Freud’s psychoanalysis are caught up in this concept. Is it about making the familiar – and the familial – strange? Or is it about returning the strange to the familiar, the familial? Here we can appreciate the double move inherent to Freudian psychoanalysis: first of all, there is estrangement of many of the common notions about the family; but this is accompanied by a compensatory move, whereby the outside becomes legible in terms of a modernist family drama. [8]

The radical nature of the unheimliche returns to acid in its folded paradoxes – the unfamiliar sounds of synthesiser presets emerging from the dance cultures of queer Houses for the homeless who won prizes for how well they could convince their peers of their “realness.”

Whilst the “Gothic” tendencies of Acid Communism may be more likely to bring to mind Fisher’s love of postpunk, it is perhaps better understood as an affective signifier common to so many subcultures. I first understood this, and what Fisher meant by “There is no inside except as a folding of the outside”, whilst on the dance floor at Corsica Studios for the first Ø night which took place less than a week after his suicide. Kode9 began the night with a mix of Mark’s favourite music and then dedicated the night to him over the microphone ~5 hours later.

That night, despite the music being of a very different sort, I kept thinking about DJ Sprinkles’ Midtown 120 Blues:

House isn’t so much a sound as a situation. […] The House Nation likes to pretend clubs are an oasis from suffering, but suffering is in here with us. […] Let’s keep sight of the things you’re trying to momentarily escape from.

All dance music created in such circumstances has this acidity within it. Acid Communism (and Corbynism) cannot be understood as some sort of politicised rave nostalgia. Contemporary dance music is arguably more explicitly politicised than it ever has been but its potentials lay squandered by corporations. The radical challenge to the law that was the coupling of ecstasy and soft drinks has now become “Sponsored by Red Bull – it gives you wings”.

I’d like to end this post with a clip that has always frustrated me from Children of Men. The film’s eerie dystopian future is striking and Fisher made good use of it on the opening pages of Capitalist Realism. Sonically, however, it leaves much to be desired – playing Aphex Twin as some sort of acid from the future, appauling SFX screams layered on top, acting as an alkaline to an otherwise already corrosive mix.

Dance music has always prided itself on aesthetically letting the outside in. These potentials can still be politically built upon, but not if we bastardise them, trying to force in what is already there. Acid’s eerie failure of presence is not an absence – understanding that is essential to accessing the portals to parallel universes that are held within.

Acid Corbynism is the 2017 equivalent of Children of Men‘s “zen music”.

Come on, you cunt, let’s have some aphex acid…

[1] Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash: a Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (London: Picador, 1998), 16

[2] Ibid., 26

[3] Ibid., 48

[4] Ibid., 163-164

[5] I do wonder how many other (nu)metalheads were converted to dance music by Aphex’s appearances on Kerrang! which, surprisingly (in hindsight), weren’t too alien next to the likes of Tool, Marilyn Manson and even (I’d argue) Metallica.

[6] Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash, 163

[7] David Toop, Ocean of Sound (Exmouth: Serpent’s Tail, 1995), 208-209

[8] Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (London: Repeater Books, 2016), 10


  1. The following statement is incorrect: “House music, and the Acid House that followed in its wake, took its name from the Houses that became central to gay clubs following the disco explosion of the 1970s.”

    This is not where house music gets its name at all. The “houses” and ballroom culture were a New York phenomenon. On the other hand, “House music” was a Chicago thing. There was certainly some cross-pollination; the club scene and garage music in New York paralleled, were influenced by, and influenced House music. But New York and Chicago are physically pretty distant and that distance causes cultural differences. Chicago’s gay club scene is and was centered more around dancing and DJs than the performances and spectacles of ballroom culture in New York. Close to Chicago is another working class city, Detroit, and there is more in common with the development of the house music scene in Chicago and the techno scene in Detroit than there is between Chicago and New York or Detroit and New York. People moved between these scenes and DJs in these cities played records from the other scenes, so it was not completely separate, but the “houses” and “house mothers” were a distinctly New York phenomenon and had nothing to do with “house music” (though I’m sure many of them loved it, listened to it, DJed, and danced to it).

    There’s plenty to explore in the intersecting post-disco histories of dance music, black culture, LGBTQ culture, and club culture in different US cities, but “house music” gets its name from a very specific thing: the Chicago night club called “The Warehouse” where the first house music DJs (such as Frankie Knuckles) had weekly residencies.

    Having grown up Chicago, I can also add my own subjective perceptions of what “house music” means here. When we called it “house music” we also meant that it was music you could make at your house (as opposed to a studio), that you might hear at a house party instead of most night clubs (at first), that was from a working class city of neighborhoods consisting of a lot of single-family houses. It was also a kind of metaphor similar to what you meant but that was only a small part of the meaning – there were no distinct “houses” – there was just the one house scene, a big-tent community that professed love and acceptance while many of our peers got sidetracked by divisiveness and gang culture.

    I hope that is helpful context to you and to your readers. Cheers!

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