In March 1994, while James was living in Stoke Newington, Warp Records released his second album, Selected Ambient Works Volume II. In the midst of such mayhem, out came a 25-track ambient LP, a record that, by all accounts, no one was expecting. At that point, only one of 30 or so Aphex Twin tracks could be considered ambient—”I” on SAW 85-92. He was better known for furious rave bangers, such as “Polynomial-C,” or the tender, yet still ravey, techno and IDM of his debut album. A few months before Selected Ambient Works Volume II hit the shelves, Warp released On, a four-track EP of rabid and melodic techno that many assumed was the first single for the new LP. It was also the first record to come out on Sire, the subsidiary of Warner Music that had just signed Aphex Twin in the US. Soon, the title track’s Jarvis Cocker-directed video was on MTV, and anticipation for the album was building. “Obviously, everyone in our office had the first Selected Ambient Works, and that’s what they were expecting,” Risa Morley-Medina, who signed James to Sire, told Marc Widenbaum for his entry into the 33⅓ series. “They got Volume II, plus it was this double record, and people were like, ‘Oh my god, are you kidding?'”
On a practical level, Selected Ambient Works Volume II was a discombobulating experience. Instead of conventional track titles, there were pie charts paired with small photos of random scenes and household objects. (These were painstakingly assembled by Paul Nicholson, who designed James’s iconic logo, and taken by James’s then-girlfriend Sam, who also shot the album artwork.) For various reasons, all three versions—UK vinyl, UK CD, US CD—had slightly different tracklists, while the track titles we all know today—”Cliffs,” “Rhubarb” etc—only came about thanks to a young Warp fanatic called Greg Eden, who posted names based on the photos online. (These were never approved by James or Warp, but they became so connected with the music that they were later adopted by Gracenote, the metadata company that reads CDs on iTunes.)
Musically, too, the album was hard to get to grips with. It received bad reviews in publications like Entertainment Weekly and Village Voice. In a famous interview with the journalist and musician David Toop, James said he produced most of the tracks while lucid dreaming—in other words, he literally made Selected Ambient Works Volume II in his sleep. All this left some people wondering if the whole thing was more of an elaborate prank than an artistic statement.
Of course, being James, it was both, the first curveball from an artist whose career would be full of them. Along with Selected Ambient Works 85-92, it remains his defining release, a record so beloved and influential it would end up altering the course of electronic music. Perhaps its most striking feature is its dominant mood. Ambient fans used to the bright and feel-good haze of Brian Eno were presented with an LP that was, for the most part, anything but: dark, tense, foreboding.
James brought these atmospheres to life with intensely vivid sonic textures. In that same interview with Toop, he likened the feel of the album to “standing in a power station on acid,” a reference to the dank buzz that hangs over the record. This ghostly film of sound, frayed and slightly distorted, is deeply eerie—tracks like “#2” (“Radiator”), “#4” (“Hankie”), “#12” (“White Blur 1”), “#25” (“Matchsticks”) and “#24” (“White Blur 2”) never fail to get the blood pumping on a lonely night. The most chilling, though, might be “#22” (“Spots”), partly because James has since revealed that the muffled voices are sampled from a stolen police tape in which a woman confesses to killing her husband. (James got the tape from a cleaner at a police station.)
But for all its doom and gloom, Selected Ambient Works Volume II is perhaps most cherished for its blissful, melodic gems. “#1” (“Cliffs”), “Blue Calx,” “#16” (“Grey Stripe”) “#20” (“Hexagon”)—against a sea of shadows, these tracks glisten. Heard in the right moment, the album’s most famous cut, “#3” (“Rhubarb”), can be deeply moving. When I was working in Ibiza a few summers ago, I’d reward myself for finishing a weekly assignment by listening to “Rhubarb” before going to bed. More often than not, the sun had just started to rise. It was always the most peaceful moment of my week.
Selected Ambient Works Volume II is a life-changing record. At its best, it amplifies our perception of the world. Feelings grow and intensify as our veil of self-preservation momentarily slips away. It’s a record for all times, all moods, which explains why it’s had such a profound cultural impact, soundtracking films and video games, and inspiring an entire book. Its footprint on electronic music is vast and always growing, from Burial, Björk and Source Direct to every techno producer who has ever included a moody ambient track on their album. Artists and fans alike, we all owe something to this strange masterpiece.