The world of theater might not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering experimental hip-hop, but for Shaban, the stage name for producer Hannes Gwisdek, it served as an organic touchstone for his style. After scoring a number of pieces in Germany and working with rapper Käptn Peng, Shaban is now releasing his first solo record, Apto Machinam (Kreismusik, April 24). The album is reminiscent of Icelandic singer Bjork’s 2011 album Biophilia in its mix of scattered rhythms and atmosphere.
Shaban’s theater background becomes more and more apparent while listening to each song of his album. Most of these tracks feel better suited for the world of drama; there is a sort of post-modern/Brechtian feel on Apto Machinam, circa “The Threepenny Opera,” as if you can see the parts moving and the actor taking his time on the stage, which in this case, is a field of sound. Apto Machinam is an album where fans become very aware that they are listening to an a collection of songs that fit together like acts in a play. But while they fit together as whole, it’s clear that this work is indeed experimental: there is no way of telling what will happen as the album progress.
The opener, “Who’s Lucy,” begins with a discord of musical elements (synth stabs, piano chords, glitchy sound effects) before settling on a slightly grooving bass line, but the track never sits in place with a clear and present flow. In fact, the song sometimes feels as if it’s going out of its way to sound different, an issue that hinders some of the first half of the album. It’s hard to pin down what it is about a piece of music that conjures this response from the listener–a response that prompts a listener to feel as if the artist is “trying too hard”–but in this case, there is so much variation happening that it is difficult to not be overwhelmed.
Track 2’s “Waltan” emerges with a spooky synth line and some ambient noise, cradling the track before barreling into a dubstep bass line and a disjointed, scattershot breakbeat. By track three, “Ungleichungen,” there’s a little more focus, pronounced with a woozy synth and drums that sound as if they’re pulled from Bjork’s Homogenic period.
By the sixth track, the atmospheric soundscape “Rumours,” the album starts to take a turn for the better, finding its voice. From the spurting stop-and-start of the hip-hop influenced “Cold Junction” to the dreary waltz of “Gwynplaine,” Apto Machinam very much comes into its own. A menacing touch becomes more palpable with tracks like “Schiffchen,” which successfully combines high-pitched frequencies with a fragile piano score and a haunting ambient background.
Touting itself for Shaban’s love of “crooked beats” (according to the label’s website), the first half of the album dives perhaps too deeply into “crooked” compositions for some listeners, showing how “out there” Shaban can really be. It’s easy to forget that this is a hip-hop album because of the extent to which Shaban experiments. It’s tempting to consider what his live performances must entail, taking his vast experimentation into account.