Ellen Allien / Apparat

Orchestra of Bubbles

(Bpitch; 2006)

By Mark Abraham | 30 May 2006

Clipping consonants, Ellen Allien doesn’t draw her signature distended vocals over the mix until “Way Out,” but how happy was I when I heard those self-bent pitch runs? And then a piano? An accordian that almost doesn’t sound like a block of sound run through a processor? The analogue delights of 2003’s Berlinette (upon which Apparat has credit) still abound, but the fleshed out sound on Orchestra of Bubbles is really intriguing and dense, and makes the songs far less insular. Apparat furrows beneath the melodies Allien crafts, his accents the bubbles that whisp through the spaces in her orchestra. Put two together, and only these two, and you end up with this? Better than I could have expected, and better than any other techno I’ve heard this year.

“Rotary” and “Do Not Break” are the most club-ready tracks here. The former sounds like the theme song for one of those trendy bars built out of ice; everybody is in a parka, flirting with the ice sculptor penguins, lips tingling on their glasses of Zambuca as they slide their way onto the dancefloor. Of course, when that sultry lead comes in halfway through, the entire thing is going to melt around bodies reaching towards the sun. “Do Not Break” marries the ghosts of Prince and New Order; it doesn’t quite shed the noir, but between the vocoders, the delayed melody and the steady drums (still shuddering, but more in time), and the car crashes Apparat laces into the background as accent beats, the song may be the closest to straight techno we’ll ever receive.

“Jet” could follow the trend, but detours. It flips counter-beats against one another; a physics experiment capturing all the complex crosswinds and operations of the machine from which it takes its name. The beginning is innocuous, Allien’s post-funk bass synths slowly bending, giving way to Apparat’s winding surges of grainy noise. The two square off against one another, techno lines threading themselves through cracks in the ambient wash, each sound trying to cross the others on the slim monkey bar of beats upon which they hang. With so much release elsewhere on the album, it’s a testament to the faith Allien and Apparat have in one another that the song is never quite allowed to come together; this jet never leaves the runway, allowing you to touch and consider its shape.

“Retina” deploys flanged harpsichord over thick cello spasms, reaching upwards with grasping hands to pull the higher notes back into the chugging rhythm. “Metric” lures those same strings into a cave; they weave around stalactites and stalagmites, again thawing the ice of Allien’s beats. Antonio Banderas should have taken the lead of this, tripping over the subterranean bass and triangles to float on the synths that augment the string quartet. “Sleepless” is a submarine; too deep to withstand the water pressure, the rhythm buckles around Allien’s multitracked vocals: “floating in white space.” Voices haunt the background; stray noises sound like creaks and shivers.

Towards the end, the album drops the veneer of cold funk to indulge in some pop sensibility. We’re pretty gushy about “The Mighty O,” “Mr. Me Too” and “Promiscuous” ‘round these parts, but I’d throw “Leave Me Alone” onto any slow jam play list. Strings careen around a defiant bass line and Apparat plays it coy; the lyrics talk about “fire” and “ice” as if the whole album to that point was simply a battle of the elements. We’re left with “Bubbles,” which begins like it’s going to pop, all snaky shakers and tension, until organs drown the thing in a pleasant wash of melancholy sound. Allien slowly moves from her usual robotic whisper to actually sing, and this comtemplative end to such a vicious album is strong enough to reframe the whole thing as a game of emotions. So this techno is complicated, yes, but it isn’t quite chess. Allien and Apparat have simply set up the board in front of you. Their silent command: “you must move.”