Today, fans observe April 14th as the cardinal day celebrating Aphex Twin’s feted ‘Avril 14th’ - so it’s important to look back on the divisive history that propelled the melody towards such acclaim. Featured on his 2001 expansive twin-disc 30-track album ‘drukQs’, the iconoclast’s creation was met with mixed reviews and heavy criticism. Writers at the time were unimpressed by the odyssey of seemingly repetitive, mis-matched, all-too-familiar tracks, and had expected something more out-there from the notoriously unpredictable and bold artist.
Despite the initial negative critical response to ‘Drukqs’, Aphex Twin’s haunting lullaby ‘Avril 14th’ went on to gain a second-life and legacy all of its own. The instrumental piece has been sampled by pop stars, inspired classical musicians, featured in multiple film soundtracks, and has been covered by an expansive range of instruments like the harp, steel guitars, and duelling vibraphones.
What was once a deviation from Aphex Twin’s signature electronic sound has become the sum of his legacy, certifying itself as his most commercially successful release since ‘Windowlicker’. Sonically closer to the likes of Erik Satie and Debussy, Aphex incorporates his own distinct style into a classical composition seemingly distantly unrelated to the world of electro. ‘Avril 14th’ not only reached dizzying heights in Aphex Twin’s expansive discography, it also began to represent a new mode of electronic that was mild and more human, with ‘drukQs’ perhaps representing that turn-of-the-century lull, following the intense decade of electronic head-rush that permeated the 90s.
‘Avril 14th’, alongside other tracks on the album, are thought to have been made using a Disklavier, or a piano with a mechanism that reads MIDI data and plays the keyboard without human input. The result, in contrast to critical opinion that ‘drukQs’ was repetitive and uninspired, actually capitalised on a newfound niche in electronic - something that sounds almost human, but not exactly. While Aphex Twin did not pioneer genres like electro-acoustic or modern classical, his ambient approach brought them into the 21st century. The evocative track takes the austere nature out of classical composition, and brings about a result that is evocative and feels human - it has the ability to create a sense of intimacy and emotion so familiar to all of us.
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There’s a reason the song has found itself heavily sampled and used across films and documentaries. In terms of filmography, the song is often utilised to create a sense of familiar melancholy. It is used to create a sadness that is not overpowering or all-consuming, but a gentle, minute sorrow that draws one in. Its use in the films Her and Marie Antoinette are meant to portray a bittersweet pensiveness, an ultimately confusing human emotion, perhaps best captured through the track’s vulnerable, delicate, almost-human-but-not-quite’s composition. In Adam Curtis’s documentary series Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, it soundtracks a moral panic, building off of the track’s atmospheric, moody, vulnerable configuration.
Viewing ‘Avril 14th’ in terms of straight realism, the song reached critical acclaim not only because of its gorgeous composition, but because of its accessibility in comparison to other Aphex songs. Aphex Twin was infamous for transgressing boundaries in techno and electronic spheres, his idiosyncratic work becoming perhaps the most influential and important catalogue within that arena. That being said, his sound was experimental, heavily dependent on machinery, and constantly pushing the limits of what could be accomplished within digital production.
While his work oscillated between ambient and heady acid-techno, a lot of it was not for the faint of heart. If techno wasn’t your genre of choice, his music could come across imposing and stand-offish. While Aphex Twin had produced (pardon the pun) ambient works in the past, 'Avril 14th’ stood out from his discography as simply being more accessible for larger audiences.
Despite the album’s mixed reviews, the maligned ‘Avril 14th' has stood the tests of time as his most popular track, and by this metric became his most well-known composition. Additionally to its heavy usage in films and documentaries, ‘Avril 14th’ has been sampled on Kanye West’s ‘Blame Game’ on ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, and inspired an SNL short Iran So Far, both of which he infamously was not credited for.
At the end of the day, Richard D. James himself said that he doesn’t like people talking about his music - that it’s “abstract”, it’s not “meant to be talked about.” Perhaps it is better to let the evocative track speak for itself, and for listeners to each find their individual reason for feeling a closeness resonating from it.
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Words: Ruby Carter
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