Music

Moderat: II

Photo: Olaf Heine

Germany’s reigning electronic kings Modeselektor and Apparat unite yet again for II, a collection of danceable yet curiously melancholy tracks. Amidst the moody fray, however, are some would-be pop hits that show just how far these guys have come along.


Moderat

II

Label: Monkeytown
US Release Date: 2013-08-06
UK Release Date: 2013-08-05
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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.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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