Appareil: Judas Kiss

[27 February 2006]

By Mike Schiller

When critically examining a band for whom the primary instrument is the synthesizer, the discussion of technical virtuosity tends to get thrown out the window.  There will never be a Clapton or a Bonham or even a Flea at the synthesizer, because it’s a matter of programming.  The “performance” of synth-based music can be tweaked until it’s exactly as the performer wants it, every single time.  Sometimes there’s a keyboard involved, but whether the performer is actually playing notes or triggering events is entirely up to the band.  Really, the only thing a synthesizer can’t be expected to do is write the songs.  And there, then, is the rub for a band like Appareil.

Appareil is a Swedish quartet backed entirely by synthesizers and drum machines.  This is fine, given that it’s the template for a number of excellent, well-regarded bands, including but not limited to Kraftwerk and the many synth-pop bands of the ‘80s.  The three men who are credited with playing those synths on the band’s debut album Judas Kiss seem to have figured out how they work, as every song carries with it a beat (that usually lasts for the entire song) and a fairly obvious verse / chorus structure.  They at least have an intuitive knowledge of music theory, enough to know what chords sound nice next to each other, though their theory geek cred takes a hit in a feature of the liner notes that apparently outlines their favorite synth line of each song—a G-sharp makes more sense as an A-flat in the chosen melody of “Passion Play”.  The members of Appareil also know enough English to give their songs lyrics in a language that allows for a better chance for worldwide acceptance outside their native Sweden.

So that’s what they’ve got going for them.

Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against them in every other conceivable way, starting with Johan Hinders, a vocalist whose closest point of reference might be a cross between Information Society’s Kurt Harland (seriously, remember Information Society?) and The Cure’s Robert Smith.  Basically, he sounds like an ‘80s synthpop vocalist who could start sobbing uncontrollably at any given second.  The result is caustic, someone whose (not exactly pitch-perfect) voice is a font of desperate emotion singing on top of the coldest of synth backdrops.  He doesn’t get much help from backing vocalist Erika Johansson, who has to be someone’s best friend’s sister or something, as her flat delivery and bordering-on-silly cooing presence could only be explained via familial ties. 

Yes, the vocals are bad enough, but…I sincerely hope that English is not the first language of anyone in this band.  Try this excerpt from “Passion Play”:  “Want your body / Surely you will make me dance / Dance, dance, dance, to the rhythm of life!”  Or, perhaps, the melancholy strains of “Werewolf Moon”:  “Coming soon, the werewolf moon / The wolf will hide, the wolf will seek for you…” These kinds of lyrics might be excusable if there were some hint of irony or intentional simplicity, as with Kraftwerk or Devo, but no hint of either is offered—by the time the “Isn’t it nice to be a nerd?” coda of “Dancer” hits, any listener would be excused for initiating the unlikely meeting between the CD player and a sledgehammer.

Admittedly, Appareil occasionally comes up with a beat worth dancing to.  “Action” features a beefy techno beat and a bassline heavy on the tritones, the combination of which distracts enough from the vocals to make the song enjoyable.  Ditto for “Zaïre”, the second and far superior half of a mini-suite that starts with “Congo” (subtle, yes?), and actually features some crunchy, distorted beatmaking and minor-key synth work reminiscent of Covenant.  The tragedy is that both tracks come toward the end of Judas Kiss, long after most discerning consumers will have concluded that they wasted whatever cash they spent to obtain it.  Judas Kiss is notable only as proof that, regardless of the fact that every aspect of synthesized instrumentation can be controlled, strong songwriting is still very much a human variable, as is that one instrument that bands remain reluctant to synthesize:  the human voice.  Appareil has some serious growing to do in both of those areas before they can even think about success outside of Sweden.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/appareil_judas_kiss/