DJ & Music Writer from the UK

Apoptygma Berzerk – A Listener’s Guide

Welcome To Futurepop

The single Paranoia arrived in 1998 – the gothic synths are played down, a hard techno-throb drives the track forward, and whilst Stephan hasn’t lost his songwriting knack (yet), it’s clear that more commercial forms of dance music are finding their way into their sound (especially on the “Haunted Club Version”).  There’s also another cover version, but the drawn-out e-piano take on Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” is indicative of a band in transition.

Apoptygma Berzerk - Eclipse (Cover)

1999 saw a brief period of daytime darkness across Europe and APB celebrate the occasion with the single Eclipse.  With a cover clearly inspired by the X-Files and a sound now incorporating cheesy synth-stabs more befitting epic trance, it’s an indication that the evolution of band’s sound to their next creative phase is now complete.  The Dimension D Rmx of the song is full of acid squelch and harder beats, and there’s also Beatbox, six and a half-minutes of hard techno and processed vocals, which worked well on tour but can be tiring as a solo listen.

Apoptygma Berzerk - Welcome To Earth (Cover)

All this leads up to the white crop-circle cover of Welcome To Earth in 2000.  The gothic stylings have gone, clean lines and extra-terrestrial influence are now the order of the day.  The two lead singles are here, and Apop doubles down on the commercial dance influence with opening track Starsign, the lush synth riff and hands-in-the-air-chorus, the hard beats unpinning it and songwriting rich in new millennium angst.  Futurepop, if not named here, was certainly born. 

Kathy’s Song is the other enduring classic, a slow piece that employs Apple’s female voice synth in one of the biggest mid-song breakdowns the genre would ever see, the “Come Lie – Next To Me” part even acknowledged by Steve Jobs himself as a particularly creative use of his user-friendly tech.  So confident were Stephan and Co with their new sound, that they applied it to their second Metallica cover – totally and without shame.  There are many reasons why recording Fade To Black with pulsating keyboard lines and a synth-bell chime should never have worked, but for some strange reason, it does, and brilliantly!  

As for the rest of the album?  There’s returns to hard tech beats (Soultaker), and chiptunes (the obligatory ‘hidden track’), but elsewhere we find that this disc isn’t quite the equal of it’s predecessor, with some low-key filler material, and a tries-too-hard attempt at a semi-cover of Badalmenti’s Twin Peaks theme on Moment of Tranquillity.  It wants to be the equal of “Nearer” from the last album, but it’s overly-sweet and drawn out, and Garland Briggs’ definitive “Love Is Not Enough” sample is wasted.  A pity that the album couldn’t deliver for its full duration, but still well-worth acquiring for the half-dozen dead-certs.

Versions: Whilst issued when the CD was still the “big thing”, vinyl and cassette re-issues would follow several years later.  If you’re interesting in bonus tracks, there’s only a couple – Sweep’s remix of “64k” is forgettable, but “Eclipse (Black Sun)” remix is an interesting alternate direction the song could have taken, and hence might be of interest for those of you who thought the album version was “too Ibiza”. 

Apoptygma Berzerk - Kathy's Song (Cover)

Kathy’s Song was ripe for remixing and hence got a slew of single releases shortly after the main album.  I’m not in the business of micro-analyzing the different versions, so let’s just say you’re either going to love or hate the Ferry Corsten remix (available in edit and full length versions).  The Dutch trancemeister has a distinct tone which is a perfect match for the original tune and by this point we truly have hit the sound of the superclubs. 

Scene purists might prefer the “Victoria Mix” by VNV Nation, Ronan Harris adding some Apple synth vocals of his own and mating those to one of his distinctively dark Empire-era basslines, a combination that had merit but sounds too ‘muddy’ to let the greatness of the original really shine.  There’s several other mixes to choose from across the versions, none of them are particularly flawed in any way, it’s just a case of picking your style of choice, with synthpop (Beborn Beton), chiptune (C-64 version) and trance (Green Court) all represented, though you’ll have to buy multiple versions to get every mix. 

Apoptygma Berzerk - Harmonizer (Cover)

The next album Harmonizer arrived in 2002.  And in a musical sense, it really is more of the same, as the only real difference is the more ‘personal’ nature of the lyrical content.  There’s two dead cert-dance anthems in Suffer In Silence (featuring Icon of Coil member Seb Komor) and Until The End Of The World, the latter offering once of the most iconic synth riffs of the early 00s scene.  The Kathy principle of the previous album (build up to female-vocal break in mid-song and everyone raises their hands in unison) is used twice, this time with real singers in place of the Apple Mac. Unicorn features Claudia Brücken of Propaganda and hence became a hit in Germany, but my personal preference is for Spindizzy – it’s marginal, but being named after my favourite 8-bit computer game ever can’t hurt. Note the “hidden track” reprises both of the choruses of these tunes – in case you wanted to enjoy “the best bits” one more time.

And with the DJ choices you probably already know out of the way, it’s time to look for something else of merit.  And I have to admit, other than the synthpoppy closer Something I Should Know (with ex-member Jon Erik Martinsen back on synths), I rarely revisit any of the other tracks on this album.  Rollergirl is Stephan getting ready for his Fairlight Children electroclash project, Ok Amp Let Me Out is a passable but too-long tech-trance piece, there’s some forgettable minimal techno (not their thing, OK?) and Pikachu is the last nail in Apop’s slow-soft coffin.  Don’t get me wrong – when this album is good, it’s really good, but the proportion of filler is rising with each release. 

Versions: Some of the original versions add the original mix of ‘Unicorn’, different only in the respect that Stephan’s doing all his own vocals.  Later issues may include a mix of “Pikachu” by Sonic Code (no interest) and some of the “Until the End of the World” single mixes I’m about to cover.

Apoptygma Berzerk - Until The End Of The World (Cover)

The anthems were obvious and hence so were the singles.  Until The End Of The World got a two-part 2CD single release.  Compared with the Kathy’s Song mixes, however, few of the artists chosen here really get a ‘feel’ for the original.  Martin Eyerer’s version is good as a standalone but falls into the “doesn’t keep enough of the song” trap, and Schiller’s downtempo take is a real square-peg in-round-hole job.  Even Ladytron (then in-ascendancy) don’t seem to know what to do with it. 

Hate to say it, but the same thing happens with the Suffer In Silence mixes, also a two-parter in it’s original form.    No matter how hard you try, you can’t make a song built on synths this rich work as electroclash. Icon of Coil are closer to the mark but seem to have lost their ear for a decent anthem and indulge in too many ‘dance remix’ clichés, a pity given IoC member Seb Komor’s connection to the original.  And hence it’s really only worth tuning in for the Lazard Remix, which throws in enough Eurodance ear candy to be at least enjoyable.

Apoptygma Berzerk - Unicorn (Cover)

A couple of years later came the Unicorn EP (though it’s actually longer than most albums), which came complete in its original form with the Harmonizer DVD (though it’s also available as a stand-alone vinyl and download).  There are seven new version of the title track.  The Video Version uses a solo vocal and a grinding guitar riff (unusual for the time outside of live versions), whilst the Fairlight Children RMX finally gets an Apop track to work with the still-in-fashion electroclash/retro-synth style.  Freezepop go in a similar direction but don’t quite nail it.  The other mixes are at least interesting, though I’m not sure Hocico were the right band to call in for song this poppy.

There’s also a mix of “Pikachu” by No Comment, but there’s nothing to work with in a song this vacuous.  We also return to cover version territory with a version of A Strange Day by The Cure.  It might have the most prominent guitar in any APB song for a while, paradoxically turning one of the riffs from the original into a synth solo, but The Cure are not an easy band to cover and this version comes across as quite awkward for a band who usually cover tunes from this era with seemingly effortless ease.  There’s also a live version of “Non-Stop Violence” from their Tel Aviv show, but it’s nothing special on a musical level.  It is on a political level, though – playing an anti-war song, in Israel, admittedly before BDS began in earnest but still after much bloodshed in the region.  I’ll put that one down as being a pretty bold move for now.  (Note: I’ll get to the DVD part, and live recordings in general, later).

Versions: The US version on Metropolis is similar but leads with the Harmonizer DVD title, with the CD portion treated as a ‘bonus’.  The EP was reissued in 2007 with three extra tracks lifted from previously released singles, but none of the better mixes were chosen.

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