Ambient music used to be simple. As on the pioneering Brian Eno records of the early '80s, most of it consisted of a steady electronic stream of burps and bleeps over a subtle (or nonexistent) rhythmic bed. The music traversed that ultrathin line between being innovative and yet utterly banal, and you either loved it or hated it for that quality.
Ambient is no longer an underground phenomenon. Two years ago, the French Musical duo known as Deep Forest merged easy-listening ambient ooze with Pygmy chanting. Called Deep Forest, the album meditative music for the media-overload age became a left-field cult hit. It demonstrated the genre isn't a musical dead-end street, while pinpointing the conundrum of ambient music in the '90s: How do you continue to make intentionally boring chill-out music interesting?
Everyone talks about the return of punk and points to lame bands like Rancid. If you want to hear the spirit of punk rock that is, music that really agitates people go to track five of ...I Care Because You Do, the new album from Aphex Twin, one of the noms d'audio of British techno wiz Richard James. The song opens not with music, but with an ear-canal-piercing screech not unlike one of those obnoxious nuclear-disaster test patterns on the radio. Even when the music a dark, rumbling dinosaur-stomp drone enters the picture, that piercing tone never relents. You'll want to grab your remote control and fast.
What's so relaxing about that? Nothing, but it does reveal how James successfully toys with ambient's conventions. His previous American album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, was a snooze, but ...I Care reintroduces tension, more beats per minute, and sonic grime into his music. James' ambient tracks often edge toward techno, their faster, harder-edged counterpart; at times you may think you're in a sheet-metal factory run horribly amok. But he never settles for the ordinary. Throughout this absorbing album, you'll think you're hearing a string section (''The Woxen Pith''), an alien baby being hatched on an icy planet (''Icct Hedra''), a droid shuffling down a street (''Acrid Avid Jam Shred''), or the chanting of dying monks (''Cow Cud Is a Twin''). By adding layers of soft, warm synthesizer chords over skull-grinding electronic percussion, James creates sounds that are simultaneously comforting and scary a fitting metaphor for the contemporary clash of technology and the humans befuddled by it. The ghosts in Aphex Twin's machine may still be alive. A-