At its essence, the act of record-reviewing becomes sort of a pass-fail proposition: If anyone’s reading, they mostly just want to know if they should check an album out or not. It’s not all lexical-cultural fun and games when an artist isn’t Kanye West with foibles-within-foibles to parse out or pun on. Sometimes we really are just weighing “CIRCLONT6A [141.98] [syrobonkus mix]” against “xmas_EVET10  [thanaton3 mix].” But it’s our job to come up with new ways to write about an all-acid-synth art object called Analord 6 without repeating things you already used up on Analord 4. It’s fine to be overwhelmed by Richard D. James — a.k.a. the Aphex Twin, AFX, Jody Highroller, whatever have you — but you don’t do yourself any favors by getting bored with his bulls**t.
So let’s engage with his new, 33-minute EP Cheetah, the third consecutive release from a dude whom we really missed for a while, as shortly ago as 2014. It’s not hard to take for granted without an obvious peg such as he’s-back (Syro, 2014, pleased old fans but likely didn’t make new ones) or unplugged-techno (Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt2, 2015, dug by those who knew it even existed). Call it the he’s-really-back record, his Blueprint 3 or something, the one where you’ve decided maybe you don’t need to hear it the very instant it leaks.
We should not blame this fatigue on the music, which is both enjoyable and carves out its own identity in James’ catalog without a calling card like “two discs of untitled ambient passages” or “ambient guy goes drill’n’bass” or “ambient guy has boobs.” Cheetah is warm, rudimentary (lotsa 808s), and demurely catchy — making it the poppiest record of this career phase by default. The challenge is not to rebuke how transitional it is but rather to point out how beautiful that transit can be. Thus, the tunes here evoke those blurry billboards and carside attractions on a long trip. Now you hear them, now you don’t. Per usual, this isn’t what we want from an Aphex record and James has done just fine not giving us what we want.
One bonus is that Cheetah rewards our patience where Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt2 did not, with a pair of back-to-back bangers near the end that don’t have “CHEETA/H” in the title like most of the tracks here: “CIRKLON3 [Kolkhoznaya mix]” and “CIRKLON1.” Not giving the record’s two most obvious jams title-track honors is the lamest nom de fakeout since Drake circumcised Views From the 6, but this father of two also thought it would be hilarious 20 years ago to drink from the milkman’s wife’s tits.
But the elephant in the room is that Cheetah is maybe the first release under the Aphex Twin seal that sounds like it could’ve been made by someone other than James. None of the perverse humor, teeth-grinding sound mix, or self-invented effects of Aphex’s past catalog leave a print on these five proper songs, but rather his more generic AFX offerings. We care because he did.
No matter; Aphex Twin’s third release in as many years implies that they’ll keep coming — until they stop again, anyway. The next one could be another wave to wash Cheetah away or it could crash innocuously into the rest of James’ vast discography. That’s the rub with being back: We don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.