Photo: Phil Sharp / Mute Records

Apparat’s LP5 Asks a Lot of Questions and Provides Some Answers

Apparat's LP5 asks questions of genre while providing a guided tour of some contemporary electronic trends.

22 March 2019

Apparat is the brainchild of Sascha Ring. Ring is also one-third of Moderat, a collaboration with members of Modeselektor. While both Apparat and Modeselektor have been prolific over time, the collaborative undertaking of Moderat seems to have more or less sidelined their respective original projects, such that we haven’t heard from Apparat since 2013’s Krieg und Frieden (Music and Theatre). So it’s good to have Apparat back, even though the Moderat project seems to bring out the best of all the participants ultimately. This background information seems important, even while it may be redundant for many veteran followers of all three configurations because the question of musical identity seems central to the listening experience of LP5.

LP5 begins and ends in very different places. How it gets from beginning to end is quite an interesting journey which is occasionally slightly underwhelming, even sometimes a little bland, but the experience is also quite often rather charming and engaging. This album might actually be a case study in the problem of genre, as we will soon see, but addressing that “problem” might also be an exercise in the futility of overthinking, so perhaps we might be best advised just to let it happen to us and observe, somewhat mindfully, how we move from one place to another along the way, and what our responses to it seem to be.

The thing about LP5 is that is hard to pin down generically, which makes one wonder if that might be a problem or rather if it may present us with an opportunity to re-situate ourselves as listeners. The first song is, in exemplary fashion, all over the place, opening in a jazz mode, then morphing into a pastiche of How to Dress Well, after which it proceeds not to go anywhere in particular. That may not sound like a particularly auspicious beginning, and indeed there are passages here that feel like an album trying to find itself, during which it might seem to lean a little hard on interludes and influences, evading the question of its own identity.

There are certain moments on LP5, for example, when one cannot help feeling that Justin Vernon has a lot to answer for (at least twice in the first three songs, for instance, including the slightly grating but ultimately inoffensive “Laminar Flow”). But hearing the influence of Bon Iver opens the door to a consideration of the influence of other left-field popular artists, particularly Peter Gabriel and Radiohead. It’s a short leap from there to thoughts of what used to be called “prog rock”, and there are passages of this album that seem to occupy an ambient/progressive space in a way that is not unpleasant, while it is also not terribly challenging. The counterpoint to this rather insidious anxiety of influence is that the competing influencer might be Burial, whose fingerprints seem to be on so much contemporary electronic music, and the balancing forces of whatever genre Justin Vernon now belongs to, and whatever genre Burial single-handedly invented, position LP5 squarely between them.

But this improvised conundrum points up something that seems to be happening in a decent if not measurable amount of contemporary music, which is that a good bit of what we are hearing in these strange times is an odd blend of genres, from pop to progressive to drum and bass to electronica and many points in between. What we sometimes get as a result is a kind of generic mash-up that might leave you hoping for more commitment to something in particular, or it might make you feel rather liberated from the constraints of genre altogether.

Perhaps the generic problem shouldn’t matter, but it does somehow, until you realize, or at least open yourself up to the possibility, that LP5 functions much more effectively as an imaginary soundtrack to a film that has not yet been made. Having said all of that in a way that seems to avoid looking LP5 squarely in the eye, there are certainly moments of power and beauty here.

“Dawan”, for example, opens with a pulse that gradually increases to cruising altitude and thereafter blossoms into a gloriously abstract and melodic combination that would comfortably grace any contemporary mixtape of exemplary and pristine electronic music. The vocals even somehow manage to evoke Kate Bush, which conjures thoughts of how she might have fashioned her oeuvre in another era of sonic possibilities. “Means of Entry” is a splendid and bracing, if brief, mélange of noise and signal, of ebbs and flows, of chords and melody. Meanwhile, the string attack of “Caronte” is a beautiful change of tone and pace that opens a suite of ambient songs that flows to “EQ_Break” and then “Outlier”, the latter of which gracefully and not gratuitously recalls late-period Talk Talk.

Nothing, however, prepares the listener for the closing “In Gravitas”, which begins in the same mellow Justin Vernon territory that much of what precedes it has staked out. Everything seems fairly calm, even ambient, up until around the 2:00 mark, when a nightclub suddenly breaks out. We have somehow thus managed to chart a course from a beautiful place out in the country (Boards of Canada pun intended) to the heart of the Berlin club scene in a meandering 45-minute span. “In Gravitas” is entirely unexpected given what has come before, although it has to be said that the spoken word material intoned over the top of the track is a tad ropy.

Without wishing to condescend either to Apparat or its putative audience, it seems that LP5 could reasonably serve as a gateway to electronic music for those who might not know where to begin. It’s accessible, it’s varied, it contains sounds that one might receive as foreground or background music, as literal or figurative texts, and it contains a through line from beginning to end that is not too difficult to grasp. For electronica veterans and savants the album might seem a tad facile, but that is to underestimate the craft on display and to overestimate the need for this genre of music to be challenging and highfalutin. LP5 gracefully treads a path between the glitching and popping of Ring’s earlier work and the grand epics of his later work, as well as it navigates deftly between obscurantism and populism. This is a niche, if not a groove (notwithstanding the run out of “Gravitas”).

RATING 7 / 10