99BPM. An elevated heartbeat. Not quite a rest, not quite a workout. Maybe a panic attack, tension, trepidation.
99BPM. The mood of the country.
It’s been a week of things I don’t know how to do, how to resolve the hate in people I love, how to deal with the anger of everyone around, how to acknowledge my own privilege and what I can do to mitigate it. This was not just a presidential election, it was a referendum on the social mood of the country. It was an event where we were forced to ask the question of whether eight years of an Obama presidency had made as much progress in the hearts of the humans who live in the United States of America as it had in the courts. The answer, of course, was not as much as the bleeding heart liberal that I have come to consider myself would have hoped.
99BPM. I’ll come down soon. This will feel real soon. The path, my role in the next four years, it’ll clarify itself soon enough.
For now, I’m still at 99BPM.
* * *
Side A of Aphex Twin’s Cheetah EP sticks at 99BPM for the majority of its duration. From the moment I bought it, I heard side A and admired the space that Richard D. James was working in, the quiet he allowed to happen, and the way synth noises seemed to seep into the mix rather than overtly announce their presence. It was about as light, fluffy, and crowd-pleasing as Aphex Twin ever deigned to be.
This week it was sinister, oppressive even. It was a heartbeat. It was terrible thoughts, seeping to the surface. It was everything I couldn’t handle about this week, and it was difficult to listen to.
I finally got around to putting it back on the turntable yesterday, and it is still those things, but it is also what I originally loved about it. It is the quiet deployment of genius, and despite my new emotional reaction to it, it is worth appreciating.
* * *
The title of Cheetah is not actually in reference to the animal, but to a now-vintage synthesizer called the Cheetah MS800. The very first Google result for this synthesizer comes right out and calls it “one of the most annoyingly complicated instruments on the planet.” As such, it makes sense that Richard D. James would want to conquer it for one of his own releases. For the vast majority, it’s hard to tell exactly what parts of it were created with the synth and what parts were created using James’ own batch of procured and homemade synth machines, but it’s a fascinating source of inspiration. Its sound is buzzy, bendy, not of this world. It’s a curiosity that never took off, an argument against the sort of populist ease that electronic instruments in their infancy were supposed to bring.
Two tracks here are made using the instrument exclusively: the last two tracks on side A are called “CHEETA1b ms800” and “CHEETA2 ms800”. Both are around 30 seconds long — perhaps a testament to the synth’s limitations — and both are beatless synth exercises that sounds like high-pitched, hollow, organ-like good aliens trying to have a conversation with low-pitched, buzzy, staticky bad aliens. They’re interesting, but more as a showcase for what the synth sounds like than anything else.
That leaves the rest of side A, 99BPM of quiet, beat-driven music of the sort Aphex Twin excels at. The first track is “CHEETAHT2 [Ld spectrum]”, whose most appealing trait is a slowly descending synth line that repeats with enough syncopation and bendy flexibility to make it the star. At about the two-and-a-half minute mark an ascending synth line shows up that sounds like it could have been lifted from the short bits described above, clearly the contribution of the Cheetah synth for this track. It makes for a good bit of aural variety, but it’s more for texture than anything.
“CHEETAHT7b” is more immediately appealing, with a straightforward beat and a bass synth line made up of actual notes. What is likely the Cheetah synth again shows up, about a minute and a half in this time, and this time it’s deployed in a quieter, floatier fashion. Again, it’s here to fill in the gaps more than to add melody. It seems that James has pegged texture and gap-filling as its most useful trait.
(To be sure — it’s entirely possible that more than the most obvious are Cheetah-derived synths as well — my own synth expertise is cursory at best. I’m just going with what I hear, a comparison to the pure Cheetah bits that James stuck in to the end of the side.
Side B is more straightforward, with tracks that might not even use the MS800 at all (or if they do, it’s so manipulated and buried that it’s hard to find). “CIRKLON3 [Колхозная mix]” is maybe the most rhythmically complex song on the record, but it also carries with it the most straightforward melodies. Really, it’s not too far off from Autechre in the days when Autechre was getting played on MTV; think Tri Repetae or Amber-era. It’s the track most likely to end up on a mixtape, and a perfectly pleasant way to spend eight minutes. “CIRKLON 1” closes out the record, and has enough skittering beats and idiosynchratically happy synth melodies to be immediately identifiable as Aphex Twin, but it’s about as by-the-numbers as Richard D. James is liable to get.
There’s also a bonus track, not on the record, but part of the download that comes with it (and also part of the digital versions of the EP), and it’s called “2X202-ST5”. It’s actually got a bigger, beefier beat than any of the tracks on the record, but there’s not enough going on melodically to really make me miss it when I spin the vinyl. Honestly, it’s not miles away from Front 242’s latter-day (early ’90s-ish) output.
* * *
Cheetah is a fine record, and easy to pull out when you want something that you don’t need to pay attention to — at least, it is unless it’s a mirror image of the very mood you’re trying to avoid. Its packaging is unabashedly bright, near-fluorescent sky-ish blue with chrome text. Its labels are cute as one could expect from Aphex Twin, both sides noting which tracks are on the opposite side of the record. And the download card that all copies come with ensures you get even more music than what’s on the record, which you can listen to anywhere.
I was excited to write about Cheetah this week, until I wasn’t. Now it’s indelibly associated with an event I wish I could forget, or at least ignore. Hopefully someday I can find its simple charms to be simple and charming once more.