It’s late fall of 1998, and the Labyrinth is packed with tattered black fishnet, gleaming PVC and apathetic scowls accentuated by heavy, thick swirls of black eyeliner.
The grimy, dimly lit goth club buzzes with a peculiar excitement. The crowd of rivetheads and goth kids can barely hold back its enthusiasm for Apoptygma Berzerk.
The Norwegian outfit bounds onto the tiny stage in an outpouring of staccato synthetic beats; diminutive front man Stephan Groth hops about like a meth-addled rabbit and bestows upon the crowd Apop’s hopelessly catchy and danceable gospel.
The entire club is churning; a sea of rainbow-colored hair flies and facial piercings glint under the strobe lights. Possessed by the pulsating beat of music — an altogether uplifting din — the audience is whipped into a frenzy.
The headlining band that night was Spahn Ranch, a clangy, aggressive, industrial-strength assault spiked with heavy guitars and guttural wails. The moment the band struck the first ear-piercing chord, the crowd cleared out.
Cut to 2002, and Apoptygma Berzerk is now the headliner at St. Andrew’s Hall, a venue five times the size of the Labyrinth.
The band is now huge in Europe, and is inching toward stateside mainstream success; and with that success, Apop has helped kick-start a movement that blurs the lines and rigid categorizations that often overdefine electronic music.
Groth was born in Denmark to musical parents; his father a successful blues musician, and his mother a former DJ. He later moved to Norway and grew up to a 1980s sound track of OMD, Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys, a sound that backdropped the burgeoning European techno music scene. He also dabbled in goth and metal, and when he began creating his own music, he attempted to meld his divergent musical interests into a single cohesive sound.
Groth founded Apop in 1989 with a buddy who later dropped out; although Groth has surrounded himself with assorted collaborators and backing musicians over the years, Apop has remained a one-man project.
When the band stormed onto the U.S. scene, the face of industrial was rapidly mutating. Throughout the 1990s, the scene was saturated with coldwave industrial, an alpha-male sound which focused on screeching, growling guitar work (a blatant no-no in the mind of industrial purists) and thick, heavy resonance.
Bands such as KMFDM, Sister Machine Gun and 16 Volt picked up the torch of Skinny Puppy and boldly forged onward, propelled by a shitload of guitar feedback and enough bubbling fury to assist any good ol’ fashioned black-shrouded misanthrope in stomp, stomp, stomping through the miseries of life.
Then along came Apop, with the wildly popular dance floor hit, “Nonstop Violence,” a protest against compulsory military service, inspired by a time when Groth was forced to put his music on the back burner and serve in the Norwegian army. Despite the anti-war message and sampled news report sound bites from the war in Bosnia, the song was undeniably bouncy, poppy and danceable.
Apop didn’t exactly change the face of industrial and synthpop, but it did give it a swift kick in the ass.
Emo and EBM
In a telephone interview just before the start of the American tour, Groth is soft-spoken and almost hesitant at times. His English is solid and clear, but his dialogue skips and stutters when he grasps for the right terms to convey the meaning in his music.
“It’s difficult to explain in words,” he says with a muted, slightly self-conscious laugh. “That’s why I make music instead.”
Synthpop was a natural path for the musically eclectic Groth; the genre focuses on electronic sound, but the songs still comply with traditional structure; unlike techno they are finite in length, and utilize the standard verse-chorus-verse outline.
You can toss a bunch of electronica fans in a room and watch them froth for hours on the boundaries of techno, trance, house, synthpop, darkwave, goth, industrial, and everything which is crammed under the broad umbrella of EBM — Electronic Body Music.
Groth believes his music transcends genre-labeling.
“I’ve always tried to avoid labels, because I think it’s boring,” Groth explains. “If you agree to a certain label, then you have to limit yourself, and it’s hard to break out of that. As long as you can avoid being labeled, it gives you freedom. Apop is a mixture of a lot of stuff, it’s not 100 percent pure of any style. I’d say it’s somewhere between pop and techno, with a little dash of trance.”
Perhaps the most significant element of Apop is its pervasive, underlying current of optimism and empathy. In the context of industrial and techno — two genres noted for pessimism and cold, mechanical sterility — this juxtaposition is almost mind-boggling.
“Apop is uplifting, and I always try to send out a positive message,” says Groth. “My roots and my soul is in the ’80s, and that really shines through in the melodies of my music.”
But somehow, Groth makes it all work. Apop’s breakthrough album, 7, is one of the most gorgeous, inspirational and well-crafted albums released in recent memory. The most striking track, “Love Never Dies” is a pulsating, achingly beautiful love song structured around a sample of “O Fortuna.” It’s the techno-tweaked rebirth of a classic operetta, and it’s simply haunting.
“I try to put good melodies into sterile, electronic sound,” says Groth. “Techno is supposed to be computerlike, and I’ve tried to put a little soul in it, and make it melodic. Even though the rhythms are sterile, it’s got a human touch — it’s the whole man/machine thing.”
While it’s hardly appropriate to think of Apop as the emo of EBM, it’s that subtext of emotion that makes the band stand out among its contemporaries.
Groth abandoned some of the darker elements of his music on 7 on the next release, Welcome to Earth — a distinctly lighter, faster, and more danceable entry in the EBM soundscape — but for the most part, fans still ate it up and danced their asses off.
Groth is gradually expanding his audience and exploring new territory within the world of “oontz” — but will that cost him some of the fans who helped catapult him to success?
Apop’s new album, Harmonizer, has struck a controversial chord with fans. It marks an even bigger jump into the pool of techno and trance, a beats-per-minute eruption that harkens to the sound of Eurodance commercialism.
“Some people might say it’s a little more dance-y, and I don’t know if I’d agree,” mulls Groth. “It’s a natural development for me; it’s very modern and electronic, and very much the sound of Europe at the moment. Back in the day I used to make music that was darker and more industrial, and now it’s a little bit more technoish — but it’s just been natural for me to go that way.”
Pop never dies
In the end, Groth doesn’t worry his new sound explorations will spark a loss of fans.
“When you’re a fan of a band and you like the previous material, you have a lot of expectations, and if the sound doesn’t match your expectations 100 percent, that can be problematic,” says Groth. “If it’s a little different, it takes a little time for them to get used to it, that’s pretty typical.
“However, I’ve always tried to develop and take things further, and avoid repeating myself — when you repeat yourself, it gets less interesting, and that’s when you lose fans, when you just keep putting out the same material.”
Detroit is a city with its finger firmly on the mechanical pulse of electronic music, and Groth expects the response here will be positive.
Groth was, in fact, so enamored of the Motor City during his stop on the “Welcome to Earth” tour, he was compelled to write a song about it, “Detroit Tickets,” which appears on the new album.
“I love the city, especially because of the techno music scene. Detroit fans are very enthusiastic, and it’s always fun to play there.”
Whether Apop’s new album will draw new fans — or disgust the old ones — remains to be seen. The band’s fate will be illustrated on the faces of the crowd at their upcoming Detroit show, in the eclectic mix of vinyl corsets and brightly colored fake hair, the black phat pants and glow sticks, the celebratory blending of old and new, light and dark.
Apoptygma Berzerk will perform at St. Andrew’s Hall along with Beborn Beton on Wednesday, May 15.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]