Aphex Twins 1994 masterpiece Selected Ambient Works Volume II includes barely anything resembling a beat or any sign of typical song structure, yet the album continues to garner adulation generally reserved for holy music. Fans have been testifying on its behalf for nearly two decades, as if it were capable of curing ills or healing the soul. Its synthetic construction belies the intuitive, human, melancholic and uplifting nature of the music.
Some have speculated the album was intended by Aphex Twins Richard D. James as a farce, as if its Über-minimalism was a joke played on an electronic community that relied so heavily on the beat; an expectation-defying statement from ambient-houses young hero. The album induces varied responses and often from the same person. A listener may go from being incredulous to drenched in tears within the span of a single track. Music critic Frank Owen described the music as veering between an eerie beauty and an almost nightmarish desolation. James himself described it as like standing in a power station on acid.
The albums raw emotional power is built upon the influences of Brian Eno, Erik Satie, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and The Orb. Each of its tracks has an elegiac and desolate feel far removed from the tooth-rattling, drill-n-bass or abstract electronica for which James was originally known. The soft, nimble flow leaves one in a tranquilized state. Throughout the album, James resists the temptation to layer the sound with beats or samples. Instead, he relies on swathes of sound and harmonics and almost-implied pulses. When the music does incorporate subtle industrial sounds, rhythmic drums or muted samples, it is only to affect a menacing feel in the textures.
Remarkably, for an album that is often perceived as difficult, Selected Ambient Works Volume II is quite accessible. Featured in films, commercials and video games, the music continues to offer an entry point for listeners new to the ambient genre while remaining a classic touted by connoisseurs.