What is the state of electronic music in 2011? It’s a big question. In order to answer it, you might look first to the mainstream, where synths and Auto-Tune have overrun the pop landscape (seriously, even Maroon 5 has succumbed at this point). Or you might look at the dubstep scene, which has only been around for a decade or so but already spawned a “post-” movement, led by wunderkind James Blake. You might look at Radiohead, perhaps the elder statesmen of experimental electronics at this point. While 2000’s Kid A remains their crowning electronic achievement, this year’s The King of Limbs is as bleep-bloopy as anything they’ve recorded.
As exciting and important as all of those players are, though, the new album by Apparat might be the most accurate distillation of electronic music present and future, maybe because it strikes something of a balance between beat music, experimentation, sonic landscapes, and melody. On The Devil’s Walk, Apparat (a.k.a. Berlin musician Sascha Ring) explores many of the avenues that computers have to offer the musical world. But for the first time, he’s added live instruments to the mix, giving his music a tone that’s neither claustrophobic nor icy. It’s a midpoint between densely-orchestrated post-rock and ambient electro, and the results are pretty captivating.
Apparat’s music is sung in English, rather than Ring’s native German, and like many European artists, the language gap lends Ring’s lyrics a gentle poetry that complements the keening melodicism of his songs well. On “Escape”, a brief interlude filled with swelling strings gives way to a verse in which the singer “sneaked away on soft hands / Another world in the making”. Standout track “Song of Los” — possibly the closest the album has to a traditional single — seems to play on that German word los (very roughly, “lacking”) when Ring sings, “I just want to slide across / I am trying to get lost”.
Ring explores heavy themes such as solitude, loss, and death throughout the album, and you get the sense that even when he’s not singing about them, they’re on his mind. The stunning instrumental “A Bang in the Void”, which recalls Sufjan Stevens and Sigur Ros in its juxtaposition of flitting vibraphone, muted trumpet blares, effervescent falsetto sighs, and plodding synth-bass rhythm section, is sublimely melancholy. And “Goodbye”, a shadowy break-up song featuring tender guest vocals from the young Austrian musician Anja Plaschg, centers on the heartbreaking line “Bury your doubts and fall asleep / Find out I was just a bad dream”. Ring’s ability to pull off a line like this without veering too far into melodrama is one of his greatest strengths.
If there’s a complaint to be made about The Devil’s Walk, it’s that Apparat doesn’t really do anything to push electronic music forward. You probably won’t hear anything here that you haven’t heard before. But Apparat’s contribution to the geography of electronic music right now might be more important: he’s bridging the gap between electronic and indie, following in the footsteps of acts like Animal Collective and St. Vincent. And when it’s also beautiful, dreamy music that’s got something to say, what’s to complain about?