I forget who said that perfection is not when there's nothing left to add, but nothing left to take away. Art is as much subtractive as it is additive: you spend at least as much time figuring out the frame of things, where things begin and end, as much as you do determining what to fill that frame with. There may only be twelve notes — at least in Western music — but look what we've been able to get out of them so far.
Every time I come across an embodiment of this sort of thing in music, I instinctively cherish it. It happened with Brian Eno's Music for Films and The Pearl, with Philip Glass's Qatsi soundtracks, with Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, and it absolutely happened with Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which I came to only after I had all the rest of those under my belt. And it was only out of sheer ignorance that things came to pass in that way: to me, Aphex Twin was one of the many bands I just pre-emptively brushed away, like so many crumbs off a table, because I didn't think they had anything to offer me. It was nice to be wrong.
Those walking in knowing nothing about the band might think this was a closet-cleaning effort released after a number of other Aphex Twin albums had already hit the shelf. Not true: this was one of the earliest formal releases from the band, and even if it wasn't, it has the kind of flow and programming between tracks that makes it feel like a formally-assembled album. Like The Pearl before it, it's one of those records where I always seem to forget what comes next, but I don't mind — half the pleasure of such a record is realizing you always feel like you're listening to it for the first time.
Even without the echoing haze that suffuses every track, the word "ambient" fits the music — there's the barest pulse of percussion, minimal basslines, an oddball collection of found sounds that come and go (even the "loud" ones never seem all that loud, strangely). When I first heard the term "intelligent dance music" I had no idea that Aphex Twin, its siblings, and its children were thought of as the primary incarnation of that sound. Forgive me — I'm the same man who listened to Merzbow before I did Coltrane, although doing so made it a little easier for me to see the beauty in Coltrane at both his most excessive and reserved. And even now calling it "dance music" seems like nothing more than an easy nod to the fact that there's a beat somewhere in there.
If the album hadn't been titled Selected Ambient Works 85-92, it might well have been named after its opening track, "Xtal". "Crystal"? A good description for what we hear — the music on the album (especially on that opening cut) is crystalline, shimmering, awash in a pond of echo and tape noise. The latter is apparently unavoidable: word has it that most if not all of the cuts on the record were rescued and remastered from cassette copies. As with Sun Ra's Nuclear War, that only added to the fragile atmosphere of the record, and made it feel all the more like some rarity that was rescued narrowly from oblivion.
It's difficult to speak of which cuts are my favorite, in big part because the album lends itself so easily to being heard as a suite or a continuum. "Xtal" and "Tha", the first two cuts, stand out to the degree that I can imagine them being two sides of a single. "Schottkey 7th Path", despite its slightly blurry sound, verges on being menacing (as does "Hedphelym", another favorite), and the closer, "Actium", leaves us on just upbeat enough of a note to dispell some of the darker clouds that always seem to be hanging over some corner of this record. The ultimate feeling is that of lone voices speaking out of the dark — but warmly, in sympathy and familiarity, not in despondence or gloom.
When people talk about a work of art approaching or embodying perfection (as I hinted at in my discussion of Kind of Blue), they often fall into the trap of thinking of perfection as something that is approached by best hewing towards existing examples of it. The more we make a given album like one that is already "perfect", the more "perfect" this one will become. A mistake: all you do in such cases is copy the most obvious aspects of something. If I went and made a record that had the same grainy echo, the same saved-from-cassette atmosphere, the same blips and chirps as this one, I wouldn't have a perfect record — because the perfection that we hear isn't in any of those ingredients. It's in the fact that they were able to come together as they did, once upon a time, for all time, in a way that they had never quite been assembled before. The best way to honor the perfection of a record like this is to make something as unlike it as possible. But just listening to it also works.