The last time we heard from Apparat, faces were quite literally melted. I’m of course referring to “Goodbye”, the mournful highlight of his 2011 studio LP The Devil’s Walk, which was used as the background music to Gus Fring’s slow-mo walk to his final encounter with Walter White in the unforgettable season 4 finale of Breaking Bad. That season found the program at its most tense and explosive, and “Goodbye” — while perhaps too much of a dead giveaway with its title — was a perfectly timed moment of Zen-like tranquility before Walt took Gus’s face… off. Many likely encountered Apparat — the stage name of German electronic musician Sasha Ring — for the first time with that Breaking Bad episode, and if any were to have picked up a copy of The Devil’s Walk after finishing the episode, they would have likely been surprised by “Goodbye”‘s uniqueness relative to the rest of the material on that album. Ring’s style of electronic music is fairly subdued compared to some of his contemporaries, especially the famed glitch duo Modeselektor, with whom he collaborated on 2009’s Moderat, but “Goodbye” significantly differed from the tracks it was placed with. Drenched in an almost overwhelming amount of mood, the track owed more to post-rock than to any of the electronic subgenres he’s often pegged with.
Ring clearly sensed a strength in that song considering the style of his latest release, Krieg und Frieden (Music For Theatre). Commissioned as an accompaniment to Sebastian Hartmann’s stage production of Tolstoy’s War and Peace at the 2012 Ruhr Festival in Germany, Krieg und Frieden (German for “War and Peace”) draws heavily from “Goodbye”‘s melancholy, though the overall sonic has shifted in key ways. Although Krieg und Frieden isn’t really a studio LP, at least in the way The Devil’s Walk was, as a record it showcases Ring’s skill with mood and dynamics, spreading what made “Goodbye” so powerful across 10 white-noise-laden compositions. Like the post-rock from which it takes many of its cues from, the album could easily be used as a sort of “soundtrack to an imaginary film,” or at the very least a way to make your afternoon walk seem life defining.
The integral newish addition to Apparat’s sonic palette, however, is an ambient/drone texture that overlays about a third of the LP. However, this isn’t to say Krieg und Frieden is a homogenous affair. Multiple parallels can be drawn to other artists: in its fuzzy, distorted moments (“Tod”) the record recalls Bass Communion, and in its glacial, shimmering textures (“44 [Noise Version]”) it harkens to guys like Tim Hecker. A large part of what makes the mood here so effective is how Ring takes these elements of ambient and drone and capitalizes on the soundtrack-like sensibility that’s inherent to both. Rather than letting a particular drone or texture go on and on in the hopes that it eventually forces a mood out of the listener, Ring squeezes out all possible emotion out of each note, wasting no time in crafting a sonic landscape uniquely designed for the stage. Sometimes he even drops subtlety completely and brings in the battle drums: the Hecker-like introduction to “Austerlitz” doesn’t last long, as dramatic piano chords and resounding drum hits help bring the album to its conclusion.
But for all the times Ring is successful in balancing the soundtrack and ambient elements, there’s a significant problem with the synch of the record, a problem best framed in the dichotomous nature of its title. Two sets of twin songs –“44” and “44 (Noise Version)”, “K&F Thema (Pizzicato)” and “K&F Thema” — are the key components of the LP. Unfortunately, they’re also the weakest. This fact has little to do with the actual quality of the music itself; the somber Mansell flourishes of “K&F Thema” are actually quite lovely. Rather, in juxtaposing two variations on a theme, one with acoustic instruments and the other electric, the impression is given that Ring is still not quite sure how to reconcile those two compositional styles. The image of the confident artist who wrote “Goodbye”, which balanced rich acoustic piano with synthetic textures masterfully, is revealed to be quite imperfect with Krieg und Frieden. Unlike the paradoxical title of the LP—“and” instead of “or”—we’re instead presented with its opposite, the false choice: the cello or the synthesizer, the pizzicato or the pre-programmed distortion. There are a good many instances in Krieg und Frieden where there is some overlap between the two, and it’s enough to make one wonder why Ring chose a segmented over a cohesive approach.
In a wise, semi-humble move, Ring pre-empted his critics in the announcement of the album, stating, “it’s full of imperfection because it’s made by humans.” Tautologies may help his case initially, but it’s hard to excuse the odd sequencing of cuts like “44” and “K&F Thema”. War and peace can be mutually exclusive choices, but they don’t have to be. There’s plenty of room for a violin and a squally drone to get cozy. Apparat as a project fits well in the dynamic of a film score and in the style of an electronic ambient outfit; now all that’s left to do is to bring those two worlds together, in so doing letting peace and warfare duke it out to find something in the middle. I imagine the result — much like the charred remains of Gus Fring’s face — would be something quite visceral indeed.