Thus far, Old Apparatus have been a study in how individuality can thrive in the context of collectivism. The East London collective is four strong and operate anonymously (sound familiar?), but aside from the mystique that invariably gets heaped on top of anonymity, the quartet’s creative process seems to reflect their decision to operate as a singular, faceless unit. Earlier this year, after releasing two excellent EPs on Mala’s Deep Medi Musik in 2011, the crew founded their own imprint, Sullen Tone, and have been on quite a tear since.
The four producers have spoken to the extent to which Old Apparatus is the result of collaboration and how much of it is solitary tinkering. The name itself seems to represent a shared aesthetic or universe born from the ideas and influences all four producers found reflected in each other. Each track Old Apparatus has released was most likely produced by a single member of the collective–with some input from the rest of the group–but each adds to the unitary, higher-purposed whole. It’s as if the group has come together to construct their own shared and cohesive aural narrative. One that’s perfectly summated by the intricate retrofuture artwork adorning each of their releases. Its roots are planted firmly in knock-kneed UK bass and techno mutations, but Old Apparatus achieves something grander and more significant in scope, taking, not just sonic, but emotional and thematic cues from sources as varied as industrial music, Dead Can Dance, and labels like Kranky and Constellation.
Old Apparatus christened Sullen Tone back in July with a four-track EP titled Derren, which contains contributions from the entire collective. It’s the perfect introduction to where Old Apparatus finds itself in 2012. “Zimmer” opens with a mournfully shuddering vocal announcement like a Muslim call to prayer echoing through cracked city streets on an overcast morning. The track bellows and rolls with a charred drone while a stretched, spectral vocal writhes across spindly industrial textures in the background, soft pattering piano notes littering the track’s edges. The title track quickly follows, easing into a static-coated atmosphere before a rustic, Shlohmo-esque joining of stilted acoustic guitar plucks and rattling organic percussion takes over, a distorted singer-songwriter-y vocal flailing above.
After Derren, Old Apparatus announced they planned to release a trilogy of EPs throughout the rest of 2012, one from each producer in the group (or duo of producers as it might be). The first, Realise, is credited to LTO. It’s here where the Old Apparatus moniker starts to reveal a dimension only hinted at in previous outings. The culprit is “Holding,” which beautifully reflects the EP’s cyberpunk album art. The track opens with a sequence of percussive bell-tone synths, a fleshy glitch drum loop bouncing off a rubber-toothed bass pulse. Near its middle an om-ing basso floods the track followed by a some breathtaking noir-ish trumpet flourishes. The track coalesces and then just climbs. “Realise,” too, has a post-rock-esque build out of a meditative, antique machine atmosphere to its widescreen finish.
Alfur follows Derren. Credited to A. Levitas, the five-track EP explores territories reminiscent of producers like Balam Acab and Lapalux without losing Old Apparatus’ foreign undertones. It’s also the most vibrant and intricate of the lot. Opener, “Boxcat” starts with the sound of chirping birds before settling around some jouncing synth squalls, arcing like rhythmic splashes of paint. After its chaotic beginning, “Schwee” finds a lush two-chord melody, its start-stop percussion circling a chorus of exaltant vocal samples before a rush of cloudy synth noise envelops everything. “Coalapps” is a headlong rush through a forest of shimmering sunbeams while “Lingle” is a colossal, heavenly dirge, riding on another bodily ripple of voices.
It’s the last in the self-described trilogy, Harem, from the producer of the same name, that fully delivers on the promise of tracks like “Holding” and “Realise.” It’s uniformly, and by a wide margin, the strongest release from Old Apparatus to date. It’s also the darkest and “most haunted” as the group put it themselves. “Sunday Service” opens with the fluttering decay of a slowed synth arpeggio and distant, stretched unconscious female vocal before it’s consumed by a black hole of a drone, more vocals cordoning the track. “Mernom” revels in negative space, waves of curdling black analog synths rising and falling before a barely there rhythm lands on the track, its snare like old bark being splintered. Everything falls away to let a solitary vocal shout tearfully into the quiet before it all rises again in quiet transcendence. There’s a commanding and disquieting severity to the last stretch of the track that has little to do with modern beat music.
Penultimate cut, “Dourado,” would make Shackleton proud, deploying spidery tribal d’n’b drum loops and clanging indigenous percussion over crawling shadowy drones, which reach a screeching pitch before a wordless vocal howl comes careening into the dingy spotlight. Like “Mernom” the cut somehow completely separates Old Apparatus from their piers. The heavily ambient “Octafish” closes out the EP, centering on an oily, obsidian drone, little sparks of light and industrial noise seeping through the cracks. The two ambient pieces act as a perfect frame to the two center tracks, but they’re gorgeous in their own right as well. Harem is beautiful and beautifully brazen, containing its fair share of truly devastating moments. Old Apparatus have proven themselves to be one of the most promising and singular acts toiling in UK dance music and their approach is almost as compelling as their outcomes. 2012 has undoubtably been a banner year for the quartet and with Harem it’s ended on a staggeringly high note.