200bpm breakcore, blasts of feedback and blinding visuals: Aphex Twin's Forwards Festival set was a divisive, high-octane victory lap

forwards festival
(Image credit: Beth Whelan)

This year, Aphex Twin returned to the live circuit for a series of performances that have given many of us their first - and possibly only - chance to witness the world's most revered electronic musician doing his thing. Last weekend, Richard D. James visited England's West Country (home to MusicRadar HQ) to headline Forwards Festival. We sent Si Truss along to find out if James' show would live up to his lofty reputation...

Now in its second year, the 2023 edition of Bristol’s Forwards offered a solid case for the idea of electronic music as a truly ‘live’ proposition, as opposed to something confined to clubs and DJs booths. 

First night highlight Bonobo has long been one of dance music’s best live performers – arguably more exciting on stage than on record these days – and his commitment to touring with a full live band featuring keys, drums, a brass section and guest vocals is laudable, and pays off in the form of a varied and engaging career-spanning set. Similarly impressive are Neil Barnes’ revived incarnation of Leftfield, whose set combines pulsating sequenced basslines with live percussion and numerous synth filter freakouts.

The main event comes in the form of Aphex Twin, playing the final date on his short run of 2023 gigs that also took in London’s Field Day. As with that show, his headline set is high-intensity, often jarring and unlikely to win over any swing voters. For Aphex devotees though, his hybrid DJ-come-live show is like a treasure trove. There are tracks that touch on various aliases and eras, from The Tuss’s Synthacon 9 through several choice AFX rarities, a standout airing of Drukqs cut Vordhosbn and what we’d assume is a fair volume of unreleased material.

forwards festival

(Image credit: Beth Whelan)

These come side-by-side with tracks from contemporaries like Squarepusher and The Black Dog, along with a couple of surprising dubstep cuts, each bent and reshaped to fit perfectly with the Aphex aesthetic. There are moments when it becomes challenging – an extended interlude of feedback and a final few minutes where tempos push up toward the 200 bpm mark – but these are short lived enough to come off as playfully ‘difficult’ moments among an otherwise coherent and surprisingly danceable set. 

The visuals, provided by London’s Weirdcore, are stunning too – working iconic cover art, VST UIs and local celebrities among an onslaught of colour and movement, occasionally dropping away to reveal the silhouette of Richard D James at the centre of it all. A top class victory lap from an artist rightly lauded as a legend.

Revisit our Classic Interview with Aphex Twin.

Si Truss

I'm Editor-in-Chief of Music Technology, working with Future Music, Computer Music, Electronic Musician and MusicRadar. I've been messing around with music tech in various forms for over two decades. I've also spent the last 10 years forgetting how to play guitar. Find me in the chillout room at raves complaining that it's past my bedtime.

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