In this installment of Deconstructed, we get to grips with the arrangement of the Aphex Twin classic, ‘Vordhosbn’.
This is an unusual one for Deconstructed. Usually, in this series we take apart the arrangement of a dance track, teasing out what makes the song so successful in the clubs. However, this time we’re turning our attention to something a little less linear, the Aphex Twin.
Perhaps the king of unpredictability, Richard D. James has built a career on some of the maddest as well as some of the most beautiful electronic music ever made. ‘Vodhosbn’, from his sprawling and polarizing 2001 album Drukqs, is both. It’s classic Aphex Twin: skittering, mutating percussion and a heart-breaking melody that likewise refuses to sit still. In fact, it’s almost classical, what with all of the melodic passages it contains.
As the coming year marks the album’s 20th anniversary, we thought we’d take a close look at the song and see why it has stood the test of time, generating a number of covers as well as making an appearance on Peggy Gou’s DJ-Kicks album.
‘Vordhosbn’ starts calmly enough, with a four-bar fade in. There is some percussion and melodic material processed with a bit-crusher. It’s kept quiet so the transition to the start of the song proper will have more impact.
The same melodic content from the fade-in repeats here, a lovely mid-bass motif that sets the stage for the song. It’s been soaked in reverb, giving it a full sense of space. As with many of the Aphex Twin’s songs, ‘Vordhosbn’ contrasts gorgeous melodies with hyperactive beats. Those beats begin here as well, a 170bpm, jungle-inspired flurry of chopped break and drum machine one shots.
Let’s see if we can identify all of the percussion flitting around. There’s a definite kick, punchy with a nice bottom weight. There’s a snappy, acoustic-sounding snare that recalls the built-in sounds in the early MPC machines. There are acoustic closed and open high hats, programmed in a skittery pattern that less holds down the groove than adds to the energy. There is the occasional dry acoustic rim shot, a flanged, explosion-like effect, as well as scattered remnants of a timestretched break weaving throughout.
While much of the percussion sounds are fairly dry, James occasionally opens up the reverb, creating unexpected pockets of space within the programming. There’s no way to confuse this with a human drummer playing in a single space. These are atomized sounds on the edge of chaos, with even the space around them fluctuating in size.
At bar 13 (at only bar 13!) the patterns start to pitch and warp. The melodic motif begins to glitch ever so slightly, its notes shifting in time to create interest. The beats, however, become even more extreme. Distorted booms perforate the break, and the occasional flanger becomes audible amongst the percussion.
The general consensus is that James used PlayerPro, a tracker, to program the music on the Drukqs album. Trackers are almost custom-built for complex drum programming. They make it easy to insert minute changes to individual sounds and so create evolving, random-seeming patterns. That’s not to say that what James has done in ‘Vordhosbn’ is easy to replicate. There’s a reason he has the reputation and fan base that he does. But it’s likely easier to do in a tracker than with some other kind of sequencer.
At bar 21, James introduces the next melodic element, a heart-breaking counterpoint melody to the bass motif. Like the bass, there’s a nice amount of effects on it to give it a sense of space but these also open up haphazardly and almost organically. Where some electronic music can feel like a machine set in motion, travelling down a linear path, the Aphex Twin’s songs often recall a mutating, pulsating and living being.
The underlying percussion continues to evolve as well, with the occasional 808 clave now thrown in. Trying to catch all of the percussion in this song is like peering into a tornado and trying to classify the detritus swirling around inside. It’s almost as if the sequencer is reaching into percussion sample folders randomly and yanking them out willy nilly.
Patterns are beginning to emerge from the chaos. Despite the constant churning, the song is generally repeating in digestible eight-bar sections. On top of the high melody, which here goes through note timing permutations like the bass, there’s a new, even higher sound. It’s a very digital, almost sinusoidal sound that pitch bends in surprising and unnatural ways.
Richard James is famous for his use of microtones. Although ‘Vordhosbn’ is ostensibly in Db minor, there are some sections that thumb their nose at these kinds of classifications. This sound is one of them. Harmonic tension is an Aphex Twin trademark.
Yet another high-pitched melodic sound is introduced next, playing a new counterpoint to the bass melody. Notice that there are no chords so far. It’s all single-note monophonic sounds. It’s been surmised that James sampled his vast synth collection for Drukqs, using the single notes as fodder for his tracker.
Another eight-bar turnaround and another variation in the melody. With so much chaos and rule-breaking happening, it’s nice to see James at least sticking to eight-bar loops. Something to hold onto, as it were. This time, the high melody dips and climbs in a quick, pitch-bent melodic phrase before returning to its former, rather simple refrain.
We should note that throughout all this, the percussion has continued to writhe and evolve, with various amounts of glitch in both programming and processing. It’s this percussive maelstrom that really underpins the song.
At bar 53 James gives us yet another melodic element, this time a sawtooth sound with a long sustain. It’s panned to the left and playing the main melody first introduced in section four. The mid-bass has also opened up a little to compete with the brash sawtooth.
To give these new sounds some space to breathe, the percussion momentarily calms down. James soon adds a heavy, monotonous bass to the mix. It could be a distorted 808 boom or other bass sound. This creates an ominous feeling.
Bucking the trend, this section continues for 16 bars rather than eight, with the last four containing a number of changes. First, the bass boom abruptly pitches up at bar 66 while the higher sounds pitch down. The crisscrossing notes result in inharmonic tension. This is underpinned by a flurry of seemingly randomly pitched 808 claves, making a return from earlier in the trck.
While the percussion builds to a climax across sixteen bars, the sawtooth sounds pitch up and down, twisting into new melodic shapes. Where most artists will use percussive repetition to create tension (and James does this at the end of the 16 bars with a spliced sample roll), he mostly relies on harmonic tension to do the work for him. While this is rather unique for the world of electronic music, harmony has been bent and played with in the classical and jazz realms for more than 100 years.
The sounds introduced at the beginning are brought back and motifs previously introduced are allowed to play out, albeit with the kinds of extreme and abrupt pitch bending that James has used throughout.
The percussion, however, is still mutating. The snare has been replaced by a higher, artificial-sounding one and there’s an occasional metallic clang, like someone suddenly striking a frying pan. By the time of the turnaround, the drum sounds have begun to go off the grid, creating a loping, stop/start vibe.
How would ‘Vordhosbn’ sound played on a traditional acoustic instrument? Not all that different, surprisngly. For all of its ADHD motion, the melody is surprisingly calm. Leila did a piano-driven cover for Warp Records’ Recreated compilation in 2009, while Waldo’s Gift tackled it in a jazz band format. Richard Houghten managed to capture both the melody and percussion with his heavily programmed, Flamenco-infused cover. The fact that this song works in these more traditional formats shows just how melodically deep the song is.
So much has happened but we’re only at the halfway point of this 4:40 song. Through near-constant variation of both melodic and percussive elements, James is able to craft a piece that is both relaxing and exhausting, still and restless.
Thankfully, the next section gives us a chance to catch our breath, with most melodic elements dropping out save for the bass and the main melody, which has been pitch-shifted into a steady drone. A string-type sound—panned right with a delayed version appearing on the left—fills out the stereo field and contributes to the calm.
The snare has returned to its original sample, yet other percussion sounds—such as the flanged hits at bar 109 or the occasional clap—continue to be introduced and then disappear, never to be heard again.
While at this point you still couldn’t call the song calm, the energy level has nevertheless subsided a bit from the hurricane of just a minute ago. It’s still raining but the storm has been downgraded to a category 2. This is reflected in the melody, which continues to ramp down, the presence of just the bass and strings enough for now.
Percussion-wise, James has started inserting moments of silence, rays of sunshine breaking through the dark skies.
Suddenly, at bar 117 the mood begins to shift. Alongside an introduction of lightly bit-crushed TR-808 sounds (snare, hats, cowbell and rimshot, among others) our strings have become more melodically active, with the sinewave from earlier burbling up with a light melody. This continues for a surprisingly long time, with the occasional reverb bloom on an 808 cowbell or clap.
At bar 141, the bass abruptly changes to a higher, percussive strike. It’s pushed back in the mix so it’s not apparent on first listen but it’s there, like background radiation.
Aphex Twin’s remix of ‘Flow Coma‘ by 808 State is both a dream and a nightmare. If you’ve ever tried to mix the original version, it can be nigh on impossible to catch where bars begin or end, such is the nature of its twisting, overlapping structure. James added breakbeats and made it a bit more dancefloor-friendly, with a countable intro. However, at certain points, the song refuses to progress in a predictable manner.
True to form, for the next section of ‘Vordhosbn’, it’s as if James has suddenly become bored with the usual eight- or 16-bar turnarounds and begun to change things up more haphazardly. Just as with ‘Flow Coma’, he throws predictability out the window and a new melodic sound—drenched in digital delay feedback—barges in at bar 138. The 808 percussion begins to peter out, with the hats holding out the longest. They finally give up the ghost at bar 149.
From bar 149 to 157, the percussion is bolstered by a processed, sampled breakbeat. The tight delay on the break adds a distinct boost of energy to the song, which had by this time begun to wind down.
Bar 157 sees the break replaced by a distorted analogue kick, the kind of AFX bread and butter nastiness that made him famous. But rather than let it go wild, he just teases us with it and then brings back the break at the next turnaround.
That turnaround begins at bar 161. At bar 165 it’s joined by the last of the new melodic phrases, a portamento-infused lead line. It’s actually two sounds, each panned slightly off-centre to add some width to the sound stage. This last melodic passage will continue until the end of the track.
And then the drums drop out unexpectedly, a first for the song. While Aphex Twin tracks rarely do what you’d expect, this does somewhat signal that the song is approaching its denouement. The percussive sound that replaced the bass in part 15 is now clearly audible.
We’re not done yet though, as a short white noise snare fill brings the beat back for an additional four bars.
The beat drops out for good and the portamento melody fades out over eight bars. The percussive sound continues to play the bassline for another four-bar section and then stops, while delay feedback (likely generated by the percussion) continues to sound until it is cut off by the end of the song.