'Selected Ambient Works 85-92' from The Tiny Home Central

Originally released late in 1992, it’s hard to imagine the impact of Richard D James’ first (double) album length opus on the dance music cognoscenti of the time. Barely out of his teens, he had already issued the groundbreaking EPs "Analogue Bubblebath", "Digeridoo" and "Xylem Tube" (later anthologised on the "Classics" compilation), which flitted between the warm’n’balmy and the evilest of madbastard techno. Then came "Selected Ambient Works", mythologised as a collection of his bedroom experiments, some allegedly the work of an astonishingly precocious 14-year old who claimed complete ignorance of all other music of the day.

Hindsight only heightens how terrific this album is, and I’ll freely admit to being biased, ‘cos this is one of a handful of works that soundtracked my university years. Here be thirteen tracks saddled with impenetrable titles such as "Schottkey 7th Path" and "Ptolemy", featuring insidious, uncoiling melodies that owe more of a debt to jazz and classical traditions than the abrupt, brutal dance music of the time (which, it must be remembered, RDJ was a leading exponent of). Adding to the allure was the low-fi smog that smothered it all, emphasising the album’s primitive production - you can hear the Portastudio faders being jerkily raised, the tape dropouts (the NME joked that some tracks sounded as if they had been mastered on a TDK AD90) and the fluctuating treble levels, all of which makes it sound more human, less machine-like.

But "Selected Ambient Works 85-92" is probably best celebrated for containing the first real flowerings from the seeds of the Twin’s genius: there are moments here that will never fail to seduce this listener, irrespective of the memories bound up with them. "Xtal" is the Cocteau Twins recording in a garage, gorgeous floaty ethereal vocal samples looped over a melody to die for, anchored by a drum beat that seems to be echoing from somewhere back in the stone age. "Tha" is nine minutes of questing synth bassline, reverberant drum track and snatches of muffled conversation. "Green Calx" is about as close as this album gets to convention, and even then it’s a squidgetastic decidedly non-ambient pummeler that plays the kind of trickery his more usual one-dimensional EP offerings in the genre can only hallucinate about. And then there’s "Heliosphan", quite simply one of the most beautiful dance tunes ever made.

Since this album he’s flirted with chart success, subliminal sell-outs (Pirelli and Orange have both used his music on television ads), and thundered across genres such as drum ‘n’ bass, new age, classical and death metal (see elsewhere in this issue for a review of some of his other current activities). But despite all the fine music he’s programmed in the last five years, this is still the album to play to confused acquaintances doubtful of Mr James’ well-deserved genius tag.

Review from The Tiny Home Central