Apparat masters the art of balance, and does a bit too good a job of it.
If Orbital had strayed more often to the pop side of the electronic landscape, it might have sounded a bit like Apparat does on Walls.
Walls is Apparat's fourth release, and despite its association with the Berlin electronic scene and its placement on the Shitkatapult label, it's a highly melodic, rarely minimal (despite its influences) album. Layering melodies on top of melodies on top of more melodies, using just the right amount of percussion, and adding vocals when the instruments just aren't enough, Apparat displays a beautiful sense of balance within its music. This balance keeps the pop from sounding too mainstream, the melody lines from getting too sugary, and the percussion from dominating the mix. It's this balance that saves songs like "Hailin from the Edge" from total cheesiness, despite its whispered chants and Casio drum fills. The ability to walk such lines makes Walls one of the more intriguing and well-produced electronic albums the year has yet offered.
Take a look at something like "Holdon", for instance -- it's basically an R&B song with garage tendencies and a pleasingly grimey minimalism in its backbeat. Still, there are appropriately glitchy noises in there to appeal to the Autechre set, and even as it might not feel immediately like a masterpiece of juxtaposed rhythms, it gives every one of its monotone elements a different rhythm, every one of which work well with the others. It's the sort of song that's easily dismissed on one listen, but surprisingly captivating on five.
Then, of course, they follow up what is perhaps the most radio-friendly track on the entire disc with a two-parter called "Fractales", a track that finds its basis in a rock beat, a rolling bass line, and a xylophone, only to have various electronic elements show up and smother all of them in a wash of countermelodies.
That's just the way with Walls, it seems -- it never gives you enough time to put a finger on a specific sound because it oscillates between a few different ones. Oddly, it is from all of this balancing and line-walking that the greatest weakness of Walls becomes evident: it never captivates. Walls is wonderfully programmed and designed, but none of it sounds immediate, none of it grabs the ear on the most visceral level. Sure, there's something to be said for sitting and thinking about a release, letting it seep into you until it becomes part of you, but there needs to be something there to make you willing to submit to such treatment. Apparat has largely missed that part of the equation, and as such, Walls has a tendency to pass by unnoticed unless a serious effort is put in for the express purpose of noticing it.
A couple of tracks do come close; the aforementioned "Hailin from the Edge" is almost startling in its simplicity and directness so early on, but the delivery is a bit too mellow. On the flipside, back-to-back tracks "Headup" and "Over and Over" have some really, really pretty moments, filled with lush synth patterns and vocal lines, but "Headup" features a beat in its climax that makes one think of Coldplay of all bands, "Over and Over" suffers from slight repetitiveness, and neither's lyrics really amount to much.
Still, it's a really nice feeling when you notice the elements of "Over and Over" that made it into closer "Like Porcelain", it's a nice feeling when you realize that the skittering and whistling noises in "Birds" actually sort of sound like birds, and really, you could listen to something like "Limelight" ten times and hear something new in it every time. In Walls, Apparat has made an album that expressly does not cater to the lowest common denominator; without the benefit of concentration and repetition, you'll never hear the beauty it contains. In the age of fast food music consumption, it's actually quite refreshing in both its approach and its execution.