Old Apparatus are an elusive bunch. Nameable only via inscrutable pseudonyms, the four members of the London collective have spent the past two and a half years releasing EPs and singles on a variety of UK labels, forging post-dubstep soundwaves and chiaroscuros that were as enigmatic as they were absorbing. Last year, in what could be seen as a characteristically evanescent move for the quartet, they established the Sullen Tone label, most likely for the purposes of disseminating their unworldly music without having to reveal their incorporeal faces to greasy marketing men and vampiric chief executives. Consecrating this new-found independence with a run of four extended-players, they’ve now been hospitable enough to amalgamate the cream of these records into an album, which as you’ve probably read is the imaginatively titled Compendium. And while the greater length and substantiality of this compilation might risk unveiling more about the hermetic quartet than they’d like, its 10 tracks have lost nothing of their ethereal aloofness in the transition.
For those who haven’t wafted into the dreamscapes of Old Apparatus, their constructions reside somewhere in the hinterlands between sample-oriented dubstep and post-rockish electronica. Witness “Zimmer,” opening as it does with an indecipherable and echoing voice-loop that’s eventually suffocated by a widening, astral drone, which, after buzzing to saturation point, dissembles into the subluminous glimmering of a xylophonic repetition. This sets the aura of secrecy and ineffability that seams through the entire record, an aura that would be blearily epiphanic if it weren’t so intangible and ambiguous. To some extent, music always has this elusiveness about it, this disconnection from a stipulative definition, yet with Compendium, this quality is cultivated and foregrounded as much as its slipperiness permits. Over the six minutes of “Derren,” cagily fingered guitar blends with a sheet of cosmic exhalation and yet more indeterminable, wraith-like vocalizing to produce a sound that is simultaneously closed and open, one that, because of its undefined amorphousness, somehow manages to obscure itself and its authors’ intentions precisely in the moment of its own emergence.
This is not to say that the music here is all ambience and mood though, or that it operates purely through a furtive manipulation of our psychophysiologies and emotions, one that entirely discards representational and narrative trajectories. Throughout Compendium, there are examples of movement and evolution, instances where Old Apparatus either magnify their abstractions or twist them through unexpected arcs. During “Lingle,” the understated sublimity of its intro is enlarged and ramified by the interruption of a lurching beat and the reverberations of a heavyset, distorted pulse, and in Chicago, the nostalgic delicacy of the minor-key piano arpeggios is skewed by the pitch-shifting violence of a decelerated electro riff. The effect of these deviations and developments is often a heightening of the unsettling ignorance that was already present via the mystifications of the album’s core sonics, since even though they precipitate the sense that a story is being told, this story remains largely impenetrable, cloaked in an unapproachable nebulousness, and ultimately effaced by the listener’s own projections and prejudices.
The obvious counterpoint to these slants on evasiveness and equivocality is that this is the permanent condition of all communication and media, and that in tendering acknowledgement of this, a group like Old Apparatus are ironically being more direct and non-evasive than any individual or group who made a pretense of complete, globalized transparency. And they are being more direct, since there are moments throughout the course of the album where the superficial opacity of their clouded dub reaches a crest of unmistakeable resonance. Closer “Realise” spirits through urgent yet haunted keys, an awakening bass line, and a penetrative layer of industrial static, all of which conspire in a spectral intensity that despite (or because of) its untranslatability is definitive in its weight. Similarly effectual in its obliqueness is “Mernom,” where the customary reels of diffusion are superimposed by glitchwork and the melodic fragment of hornlike electronics, which later recede into a near-silence firstly dominated by more unreadable vocal phantasms and then superseded by the sharpened re-emanation of the initial beats and atmospherics. Regardless of whether or not they’re trying to circle the idea that pathos and profundity could actually be deepened by the absence of narration or Meaning, these songs are at once immediate and insidious in their hold over the ear and the nerves, and they stand up to both close listening and subconscious background play.
Admittedly, not every cut on the LP is quite as fertile or multifaceted as those highlighted above. There are a couple of numbers (i.e., the glacial “Octafish”) that are so rarefied and immaterial that some might find them a little too elusive for their tastes, a little too transmundane and unassimilable. Yet despite the odd lapse, and despite the fact that it contains nothing but recycled material, Compendium is more than worth the exploration. It may be illegible, it may be unsociably cryptic, and it may be the case that the group who made it don’t want to be our friends, but all the same, it easily justifies itself as a broad and elemental listen.