Friday 16 April 2021

Retro Reviews: Apparat - Walls

Opening my definition of Retro Reviews to anything over 10 years old has been very fruitful indeed, and has also succeeded in making me feel the incredible burden of time's passage. Today we're looking at Apparat's third album Walls - released in 2007 when I was firmly in the world of electro house and whatever was hot on the web that week, so it would be a few years before I picked it up. I think I was familiar with Apparat in passing, being part of the BPitch Control crew alongside Modeselektor and all, I think I first became aware of this album off the heels of the first Apparat / Modeselektor collab album - the self titled Moderat. I can't really remember much beyond that, so I can't garnish with additional details like what I was expecting going in or anything like that!

There is some extra background I can lay down though - when I picked up this album I was in my final year of college before heading off to University proper, and I had a circle of friends I'd talk music with. It was around this time I was in a kind of experimentation arms race with them, introducing them to wilder and wilder electronic music and generally seeking out interesting takes on electronic music. The reason I mention that is that between this album and Venetian Snares' Rossz Csillag Alatt Született, there was a real classical-meets electronic vibe going on. They're on two opposite ends of the spectrum though, Rossz is frantic breakcore, whereas Walls dances between intense moments and more floaty atmospheres.

There's no better example of this than track one - Not A Number. It's almost not electronic at all, a twinkling instrumental slightly reminiscent of tracks like Aphex Twin's Logan Rock Witch. It's nice enough, but the real highlight here is the moment the entire track builds to: around 2:30 where the strings begin to take the forefront, there's a masterfully done glitchy skip before everything comes crashing back down again. It's not as brutal as the breaks from Venetian Snares' album no, but intense in its own way. A great intro in the sound-sphere of Walls, and one of many from the album that make me take back my "I hate strings in my electronic" opinion.

The tracks with strings might be the most iconic ones from the album for me, but there's plenty of variety to be had here. Track two by contrast is a much more electronic affair. Opening with that killer bassline that will be a constant companion throughout - the whole thing is a much more conventional sound that the opening track. Apparat's little production flourishes really shine here, like the glitchy skip in track one, there are lots of little touches here that keep the instrumental side interesting, with a return to the strings of the intro in the last quarter to tie things together nicely. This is also the first of several tracks featuring Raz Ohara - an artist I'm not at all familiar with outside of this album unfortunately! His vocal contributions are solid enough, some days I am not a fan of the breathy bits of this one but on the whole they compliment each other very well. It reminds me a little of Funkstörung's work with Enik in execution - but I think the vocals here are a little more accessible than Enik's.

It's an interesting album to come back to because I absolutley rinsed it clean when I first got it, to the point where even after years of it not being in regular rotation I skip over some of the tracks. Not becuase they're bad or anything but because I have just heard them so many times, It's a little difficult to explain but hopefully you have a similar experience yourself. Anyway, Useless Information is one of those tracks, I spent far too much time in my University days writing, designing and making to tracks like this - and it is absolutley great for that kind of vibe, not quite full lo-fi but in that same kind of vein, between this album and Boards Of Canada's The Campfire Headphase I had plenty of this style to go at too. It's a gorgeous track still, but after having used it (and several other tracks from this album) in some animation work I did at University I've spoiled them for myself.

Limelight also falls into that category a bit, it was kind of unavoidable as something about songs like this just triggers instant visuals in my head that I had to go ahead and make. This one didn't get it as bad as some of the others, though it did appear on more than a few custom soundtracks I was making around this time. Coming back to this album after a long time you can really hear the influence Apparat had on Moderat tracks, parts of Limelight really resemble some of the cuts on their first and second albums together. Those sharp claps and the melody introduced at around 2:20 especially so, but also in small touches like the cut up vocals too. It's about now I realise I don't actually have much more Apparat solo stuff in my library beyond this, that's something I'm going to have to look at soon, I've got a real love for tracks like this - and even more so when it goes in an even more IDM style direction as on Aspirin and Solaris from his other works.

Fractales is an interesting pair - what I said last time about the Moderat similarity is true again, but so is the similarity between Part 1 and the stuff that Apparat & Ellen Allien made for Orchestra Of Bubbles which came out the year before. It wouldn't surprise me if this was a bit of something leftover from that project, or Apparat just playing with the same ideas from those sessions. They're also an interesting pair because together they from a neat little summary of the album: Part One is slightly off kilter techno with little acoustic flairs and breaks - Part Two sees a return to that kind of ambience laid down in Not A Number, where a motif from part one is slowly swallowed up by a sea of bassy noise, It's not a million miles away from the kind of distortion Clark uses and is equally as effective. It could have easily been one big track as they flow together seamlessly anyway and it wouldn't have made it any longer than the majority of tracks on the album, but I appreciate the choice of making them separate as they are quite different in tone.

Birds continues that slightly glitchy feel, the intro sounding like something ripped from a scuffed up CD. It works as a transition between Fractales and Birds, but feels a little out of place here once the main track gets going, I'd almost prefer the transition to happen a little later and keep the glitchy bits contained in the previous track. Stick with it though and you are rewarded well - Birds is an absolutely gorgeous tune and marks what I think is the first appearance of Apparat on the vocal front too. I like Apparat's vocals for the most part, with the exception of a couple of Moderat tracks I can't think of many tracks I've disliked them on - the delivery here reminds me a little of some of Bibio's tracks from the Ambivalence Avenue album and the imagery on show in the lyrics themselves is pretty great too. The repeating bouncy motif in the background is pretty interesting, I've never really paid much attention to it before now as I usually get good and lost in the other luscious instrumentation. The strings here are the closest we come to being a bit cliché on the album so far - I think they still work well but it certainly feels a little more overwrought than some of the other pieces we've heard so far.

Not to sound too repetitive here, but Arcadia is another track where you can really hear in hindsight what Apparat brought to the Moderat project. The debut Moderat album wouldn't come out for a couple years after this album, but tracks like Arcadia have elements of both that debut and also bits of the eventual follow up II as well. This one is billed as the Album version because there's an EP with a slightly shorter edit for the video - and there's also a remix EP with curiously a 12 minute Boys Noize mix. Wouldn't be my first choice but still neat. The original is still my favourtie though - it's another case where the tune takes a little while to get going but once it does its lovely, even if it takes a good 2 minutes for all the elements to come into play. The choruses here are the highlight, I can be hot or cold on Apparat's more falsetto vocals, but I think they really work here, and I appreciate the little glitchy touches here and there (as on other tracks) applied to them in spots - they sound real nice on both the instrumentation and the vocals.

You Don't Know Me is the track that springs to mind when I think of this album - it's the first I heard and I think may just eke out the top spot as my overall favourite. From what I remember it had a brief spike of cult popularity back when, it was one of those videos YouTube decides to recommend to a bunch of people a la Plastic Love or the like, the one in question is still up, it's 13(!) years old now - some film clip with the track overlaid. It takes the foundation laid down by Not A Number and really runs with it, fleshing it out with more of the other sounds of this album - as the track builds up to it's main body and thunderous claps back those mournful strings it's certainly a standout, feeling like the final evolution of the metodology of earlier tracks. And it's not hard to see why it got that cult status as a result, among friends like Bonobo's Kiara from a few years later, the melding of strings and electronic was sort of in vogue in that sphere - both tracks are really accessible to your casual listener, catchy and unique without being too alienating. You Don't Know Me remains a fantastically produced piece, one that as I mentioned before almost defines the entire album for me.

Headup might be the closest the album comes to pop in terms of overall sound. Not to say it goes all in on it or anything, but it feels like a track that might have made it onto the radio around the time is all. Headup is also pretty unique in that it sports an almost post-rock style build to a crescendo of sound by the 2 minute mark - there's been a couple of times when listening back to this I've thought there's a smidgen of post-rock influence here but I've not really mentioned until now, this one is by far and away the most obvious example of it. It's another of my favourites from the album, it switches things up fairly often throughout which makes it a really joy to listen to and the light and airy instrumentation really compliments the fittingly uplifting vibes laid down in the lyrics.

This slightly poppy angle continues onto the final stretch with Over And Over being another downtempo piece, albeit with more of a melancholic atmosphere than the previous. Coming back to this album after a long time I'm surprised how much variety there is here - there are clear blocks of tracks that share a vibe or style, something that makes sense when you read a little of the background of the album: "When I made Walls I was just collecting some of the best ideas out of a folder with around 70 unfinished tracks, and finished them." as he says on the bandcamp page. Despite that it's a fairly cohesive experience - nothing here stands out as a half-baked idea or something thrown in to pad out the tracklist which is a compliment to Apparat's curation and tightening up of the unfinished originals. Part of me would have liked a full album of the string-based tracks that we've seen throughout the album, but I can't deny that I have a real love for pieces like Headup and Over And Over as well.

And finally Like Porcelain closes us out in much of the same fashion, flowing electronic loops and these spacey, distant treated vocals. It's one of those tracks with a 'hidden' bonus track in it to boot. It's particularly egregious as the main track is only around 2:45 and then there's four minutes of silence before another brief 2 minute untitled track. I don't mind this kind of bonus track a lot of the time but this one stands out as a little much - I suppose I am a little biased as I don't often listen to albums front to back too much these days, so I'm not really experiencing it as intended (as confirmed on the bandcamp page, the blurb of which says: "this is an album for listening to all in one go, front to back") In my mind the album was more IDM than it actually is coming back to it, it still has more than its fair share and I would say is one of the more accessible examples for the genre. It has a bunch of labels applied to it when I went looking it up, including rather puzzlingly 'Dream Pop' of all things, I would say it's not really pop enough for that label, but it certainly has it's dreamy moments so I can kind of see it - to be honest normally I just follow the discogs list of genres these days.

Back to the album itself though - it's a great intro to Apparat, it has the right balance of experimental and conventional that it's not too alienating to the casual listener - I do still really like the style of this album, even having ruined it for myself from overplaying it back when. I've barely dipped my toe further into his solo work but I have liked what I've heard beyond and before this, so add another tally the the list of 'things I still very much need to check out'. If you like what you hear here, I would go back a little bit the the Shapemodes EP and explore further from there, that EP is a lot more obviously IDM, a lot of that glitchy sound that makes brief appearances on this album but with a melodic streak that makes it not too experimental, much like this album in that respect. I would do a RetReview of it too if it were more readily available on streaming / to buy on bandcamp but for some reason it's a little tricky to come by unless you want to track down the CD or Vinyl. I think it'll take a little longer before I can put this album back into proper rotation again (but as mentioned that's my own fault), but even going back to it I do really like it, and tracks like You Don't Know Me are still as solid as ever and sound fresh considering their age.

I'll have to take my own advice next time and do another EP next time, this one again took a little longer than I'd have liked but it's not been too bad all things considered, especially with an album that you're really famillair with like I am with this. I hope if you've never heard this one before that it gives you as much enjoyment as it has me over the years. And as always - Stay safe and enjoy the music.


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