Mute 4.0: Apparat – The Devil’s Walk (Mute Artists album, 2011)

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As part of Mute‘s fortieth ‘anti-versary’, the label is making available very special limited edition vinyl versions of selected releases from their four decades of releasing and curating incredible music. To celebrate this element of Mute 4.0, we’re re-posting reviews of those special albums from the depths of the Documentary Evidence archives. Full details on the releases can be found here.

The Devil’s Walk, Sascha Ring‘s first Apparat album for Mute Artists is perhaps one of the most absorbing and moving pieces of music I’ve ever had the privilege of listening to. I write this like I’m surprised somehow, but I shouldn’t have been. I bought all three singles before the album was released (‘Ash / Black Veil’, ‘Black Water’ and ‘Song Of Los’) and with each one found myself deeply affected by the way those songs played subtly with my emotions. Thus expectations were raised fairly high from the beginning for The Devil’s Walk, though with that came the fear that the mood of those three tracks couldn’t be sustained across a whole LP. That fear was unfounded; it can.

That said, I’ve not finding it especially straightforward to write about The Devil’s Walk, since the exact word that I’m looking for to describe this album fails me. What I do know is that there is a sense of unifying sadness, making the album less about individual tracks and more about the overall sound. Uplifting moments are frequent, but fleeting and unexpected. Tracks will be progressing along a introspective, reflective path and then, out of nowhere, a subtle chord change will allow the light to seep in ever so slightly and just briefly, lifting the mood somehow; yet that inward-looking feeling is still there, underneath, meaning that those bursts of comparative euphoria, when listened to more closely, are never actually that uplifting after all.

iTunes and Mute Bank‘s website classifies The Devil’s Walk as an ‘electronic’ album, which to me creates a totally incorrect perspective on this album. Sure, it has electronic elements and I dare say a lot of this LP came about after tinkering with recorded sounds and vocals in some software package on a shiny Macbook, but in terms of instrumentation that tag doesn’t come close to describing this album. There are guitars – looped, acoustic passages; electric guitar patterns; what sounds like Stars Of The Lid / Labradford drones and distortion overtones; possible plucked ukulele riffs – reeds, harmonium sounds, strings and percussion that sounds like Photek dismantling an alarm clock or Matt Herbert recording breaks made entirely from the contents of his kitchen drawer. And everything comes with layer upon layer of slowly-evolving sound.

Sometimes those layers produce something like the opener ‘Sweet Unrest’, wherein the final layer to be added is some dreamy choral vocals, giving this an icy spirituality. Sometimes it’s the dark reverb of ‘Goodbye’, where that Labradford connection manifests itself with some clanging Spaghetti Western guitar sounds in the vein of that band’s E Luxo So, only with a constant bass drum rhythm that is felt more than heard. Those subtle chord changes and hypnotic vocals (from Anja Franziska Plascha) give this an exquisite poignancy and a heart-wrenching quality. Sometimes those layers produce the strained, almost Massive Attack stasis of ‘Candil De La Calle’ where shimmering vocals play alongside a multi-channel percussion restlessness of amazing intricacy.

‘The Soft Voices’ blends layers of piano, possibly a dulcimer and a murmuring guitar sound in a way that I read about Brian Wilson perfecting on Pet Sounds, whereupon he took Phil Spector’s methodology of layering sounds to a new level, leaving the listener questing to know what this strange instrument they were hearing actually was, when it was in fact many instruments layered atop one another. Perhaps the knackered short wave radio sound in the background is Sascha Ring’s homage to ‘Good Vibrations’; strings arrive unexpectedly; drums that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Tubular Bells kick in; a sense of euphoria is reached, only to dissipate suddenly, leaving a wobbly bass noise and a fractured vocal from Ring. ‘Escape’ is delicate balladry, an emotive vocal and lots of constantly-shifting, constantly-evolving loops; it’s the type of song that requires concentration to identify the fact that it is indeed constantly developing, while the addition of strings and ethereal harmonies gives this a filmic quality.

Referencing Tubular Bells above, perhaps ‘A Bang In The Void’ is some sort of cross-generational electronica-weaned response to Mike Oldfield’s proggy opus, via Terry Riley’s In C. It takes a while to scale up via goodness-knows how many layers of pretty melodic sounds – I can’t work out what the instrument is or isn’t – and reaches a midpoint whereupon a broken trumpet pattern kicks in. I’m also reminded of Erasure‘s ’91 Steps’, as it shares some of the muted drama of that B-side.

Closer ‘Your House Is My World’ feels like it’s been lifted straight from a soundtrack to an indie flick that hasn’t been made yet, or maybe Grizzly Bear’s soundtrack to Dedication; very Yann Tiersen; very subtle; very processed; very dramatic; I have run out of superlatives. I am frankly exhausted from over-thinking about what that one word, that one crucial word is that describes this album.

The album was released in a gorgeous limited edition book CD format which includes lots of Gothic imagery, including a child-scaring etching on the front cover straight from an M.R. James ghost story. It also contains all the lyrics, and a read of those reveals the word I was looking for all along in this review – ephemeral. The atmosphere on The Devil’s Walk is one of ephemerality. Phew, I’m glad we resolved that. The limited CD format also includes the bonus track ‘The World Around You’ which is how Tears For Fears would have sounded if they’d been fed a diet of glitchy drone electronica.

For Mute 4.0, The Devil’s Walk is being reissued as a violet LP edition.

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First posted 2011; edited 2018.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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