To use the word “supergroup” when discussing Moderat, the joint venture of German electronic mainstays Modeselektor and Apparat, is a little more than misleading. As the recent documentary We are Modeselektor attests, the German electronic music scene is a genial, friendly place, and more often than not one is likely to stumble on popular musicians chatting as were they old friends. Such is especially the case with Apparat and Modeselektor, who have had similar stories of rising up to international fame through their native Germany’s music circles.
To Sascha Ring, the man behind the Apparat name, Modeselektor’s Sebastian Szary and Gernot Bronsert are as good as neighbors, people he can casually talk to without any pretense. Being in the same musical environment—not to mention making considerable success within it—meant that a collaboration between these two projects was probably always in the cards. Far from a supergroup, Moderat comes off instead as an ordinary band that happens to have members of other well-known projects in it—though this isn’t to say its music is ordinary.
The friendship between Ring, Szary, and Bronsert is one reason why Moderat is a natural union. Beyond occupying a regional scene conducive to sonic experimentation is the fact that despite some surface differences, Modeselektor and Apparat’s respective sonics are pretty amenable to each other. With 2011’s underrated The Devil’s Walk, Ring pushed his deft compositional mind into more refined territory, crafting a set of morosely beautiful tracks that’s much different than what Modeselektor did with electronic music in the same year. Continuing its rise to the top of dance music’s echelons, a few weeks after the release of The Devil’s Walk the duo dropped Monkeytown, an album that cemented the zany catch-all attitude of these champagne-showering jesters.
From a hilarious Busdriver collaboration to two moody cuts featuring friend and fan Thom Yorke, Monkeytown doesn’t hold back in bringing all of Modeselektor’s dance-inducing fervor to the forefront, even if it was a little uneven in its anything-goes approach. Despite all the differences that might lead one to think these two to be unfit as a trio, Moderat’s self-titled debut in 2008 pushed aside any such worry. The stakes have changed, however, as both projects have matured over time; prior to Moderat, the sophistication of The Devil’s Walk had yet to fully blossom in Ring’s music. Goofy and fun though Modeselektor has always been, the reckless abandon shown on the duo’s most recent LPs is only now hitting its peak.
Fortunately, maturation on the parts of both Modeselektor and Apparat hasn’t meant the sacrificing of what it was that made the formation of Moderat a good idea in the first instance. If anything, the stakes are now at their most ideal for these Germans. II, the trio’s second outing and its first for Modeselektor’s Monkeytown label, is quite clearly a product of Ring, Szary and Bronsert’s continually evolving prowess. It’s a record that’s more subdued in mood than Moderat, yet at the same time it’s accessible in a way the debut wasn’t. Much of this has to do with the amount of vocal cuts here. Lead single and album highlight “Bad Kingdom” kicks the record off with a buzzy bassline backing a smooth vocal performance by Ring, who delivers a pop chorus so majestic one is left dumbstruck by the fact that few radio stations will include it in heavy rotation. As is the case with Monkeytown‘s Busdriver vehicle, “Pretentious Friends”, Modeselektor’s club-friendly music is less impressive than Ring’s vocal, but it’s absolutely necessary both to round out the song at a compositional level and to bring out Moderat’s unique voice.
This formula is used twice more on II with equally memorable results. The glistening synths and spliced vocals of “Let in the Light” and the melancholy confessional “Damage Done” bring together Apparat’s ambient streak and Modeselektor’s subtle pulses, in the process enhancing each. Modeselektor’s signature jams like “Evil Twin” are indicative of Szary and Bronsert’s roof-raising capabilities, but with songs like the Yorke joint “This”, they’ve already shown that their brand of dance needs its moments of calm as well. Both as a friend and as a musician with a distinct sound, Ring is even more ideal than Yorke to bring this feature of Modeselektor’s out into the open. There’s plenty on this album to show that Szary and Gernot were involved in its making, but it’s Ring’s downcast introspection that dominates the mood palette.
These three songs mark II‘s greatest strengths, to say nothing of the pop crossover potential it provides for the trio. (Call it wishful thinking, perhaps, but it’s certainly there for the taking if there are ears to hear it.) The decision to incorporate overtly pop songwriting here—without sacrificing the minimalism of German techno—pays enormous dividends. Moderat isn’t the type of group that could function in album-every-year type of way; this trio’s strength comes in playing off of the gradual successes of its composite members, which is why II is such an improvement over Moderat.
The flaws of II, then, are not related to the overall quality of the songwriting, but rather to sequencing choices that sap momentum out of the music—which is kind of a problem, considering that even as Moderat strives for a downbeat danceability here, dance music of this stripe does need some element of momentum. For the most part, this album is sequenced as vocal cut followed by an instrumental cut, which drags the flow of the songs down in its predictability. This is problematic for II specifically because of how much better the vocal-driven tracks are than the instrumental ones; the ten-minute album centerpiece “Milk” is solid in its own right, but its star diminishes just a bit when it follows the gorgeous “Let in the Light.” Even as the music ups Moderat’s established skill level several notches, as with any project that aims at bringing together the best of both worlds, there will be places where the overlap isn’t so neat.
Ultimately, the timeline of Moderat is still in its nascent stages. Ring, Szary and Bronsert are bound to have lengthy careers ahead of them, which gives them plenty of chances to improve their own music, which will in turn make Moderat stronger and stronger. This is yet another reason why Moderat doesn’t quite fit the supergroup tag. Whereas supergroups tend to have a one-off, flash-in-the-pan spontaneity, Moderat feels like a natural extension of both Apparat and Modeselektor’s styles, bringing together two different worlds into a singular identity that, while not so distinct that one can’t tell its origins, is unlike anything these three have ever done.