The Devil's Walk

(Mute; 2011)

By Ryan Pratt | 25 October 2011

Four years, in most genres, represents a substantial stretch of time to let pass between records. That isn’t the case with electronica; the futurist haven where laptop kids establish themselves on a daily basis and long-standing figureheads like Boards of Canada and Portishead exist in the shadows, reemerging once per decade with something rigorously obsessive-worthy. Walls (2007) wasn’t necessarily ahead of its time but it eagerly enriched the German electronica crossover crest of the mid-‘00s, complimenting previous stunners by Ulrich Schnauss, the Notwist, and Ellen Allien. Still, if today’s home-listening scene remains too cluttered, divisive, and downright Ritalin-deprived to long achingly for Apparat’s return, no harm done. Because Apparat has, in many ways, left the building.

Whatever allegiance The Devil’s Walk has to Berlin must lie in backward-looking nostalgia now that Apparat, aka Sascha Ring, has left Bpitch Records for a spot on the Mute roster and all but traces of his meticulous techno to the cutting-room floor. Replacing the combustible dancefloor fillers of yore with a string of atmosphere-heavy ballads is a move that electronic purists will surely balk at (and rightly so in the case of “Goodbye,” which bears closer ties to Scandinavian post-rock than anything associated with techno). But by wielding hindsight, Apparat’s transformation sounds far less incredulous and, in some cases, churns with the melodious awe that Walls sought to pierce; a parallel mood for the afterhours. Keep in mind, Ring opted to tour that 2007 record with a full band and, to this day, draws a clear line in the sand dividing his DJ sets from his shows. Both “Sweet Unrest” and “A Bang in the Void” live up to that uncompromising duality, operating on steady and intricate rhythms until lush, organic backdrops subdue their momentum.

But let’s not kid ourselves into believing that the chief consternation about Apparat’s new approach boils down to tempo, as The Devil’s Walk could easily stake claim to the murky merits of a “comedown record.” No, Ring’s more polarizing change is the emphasis on vocals, which occupies and paints eight of the ten tracks here with a predictable verse-chorus-verse arrangement. His timbre, which has thankfully evolved beyond the whispering intonations heard on Orchestra of Bubbles (2006), tends to either augment the slow-motion drama of a composition like “Escape” or inform a pop-like versatility to the warm beats of “Song of Los” and “Candil De La Calle.”

Both strategies prove seductive, if also a tad homogenous given the record’s weighty resolve, at complimenting the heart-brimming emotions listeners may confront. But what makes The Devil’s Walk such a departure lies in Ring’s willingness to let vocals determine the form and temperament of these songs. As an electronic wizard, Sascha Ring stood at the forefront of Berlin’s boxed-in but progressive campaign, refashioning pop through a dizzying and unlikely lens. With the croon of an earnest songwriter now eclipsing those technical charms, Apparat’s beat-woven sprawl compresses into a linear message shared by sleepy greats Bon Iver and James Blake.

It’s a move that’ll challenge the typically laid-back loyalties of many electronic fans and land The Devil’s Walk in the crossfire, which is a shame for two reasons. One, the record achieves what it set out to, with intimate songs gelling over a focused, ear-pleasing muse. And two, arguments over Apparat’s direction only obscure the rarity of finding an electronic album that illustrates so convincingly the ways a musician can grow over a four-year absence. It’s okay to mourn Apparat’s past and question his trajectory. Just don’t ignore what rests at the center: a record that, if nothing more, soaks in the present moment.