Mouse On Mars - Radical Connector
Wed 15th Sep, 2004 Music Reviewsin
Believe it or not, German electronic duo Mouse On Mars (aka Dusseldorf-born Jan St. Werner and Cologne’s Andi Toma) celebrate a decade of existence in 2004, with the release of their eighth album in as many years, ‘Radical Connector.’ Reputedly first meeting at a speed metal festival in Stockholm(!) back in 1993, the duo decided to form a band, and went onto fuse a love of classic groups such as Can, Kraftwerk and Neu! with explorations into ambient techno, dub and guitar rock – resulting in an early demo being passed to London-based label Too Pure by guitar-ambient electronic group Seefeel. Mouse On Mars’ debut album on Too Pure ‘Vulvaland’, was critically hailed upon its release in 1994 as one of the year’s most ‘un-pigeonholeable’ records, its single ‘Frosch’ flitting between unpredictable and inspired explorations that melded minimal dub techno, electric guitar and vocal elements, without tying itself down to any one genre.
Mouse On Mars continued to forge an inspired and individual path throughout the rest of the nineties, releasing a string of highly-lauded albums at an extremely prolific pace (three different records during 1997 alone, in the case of ‘Instrumentals’, ‘Cache Coeur Naif’ and ‘Autoditacker’), whilst also somehow finding time to remix and collaborate with like-minded souls such as Stereolab (producing half of 1999’s stellar ‘Dots And Loops’), Wolfgang Flur and The High Llamas. On top of this, St Werner also collaborates with Oval’s Markus Popp under the Microstoria offshoot, whilst also releasing his solo work as Lithops through Sonig. Perhaps the best illustration of Mouse On Mars’ ‘left-of-centre’ sense of creativity though, comes from their recent anniversary celebration at the prestigious Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, in which artists were asked to pay tribute to MOM tracks – the twist being that none of them were allowed to use the duo’s music, or indeed generate any form of sound.
So now, after ten years, seven albums and nine EPs, MOM’s latest and eighth long-player ‘Radical Connector’ upon first listen certainly appears to represent the biggest left-turn yet, in what’s been a career built upon unexpected fusions and diversions. For this latest album, St Werner and Toma have focussed upon pushing vocals to the front of all of the tracks included here, and fashioning a record far more built around overt pop song structures than anything MOM have really attempted before. While MOM records have featured guest vocals since the early days (1997’s ‘Cache Couer Naif’ featured the input of Stereolab’s Mary Hansen and Laetitia Sadier, for example), they’ve previously predominantly been used as textual elements in the mix. For ‘Radical Connector’, MOM enlisted the vocal and percussive abilities of longtime musical collaborator Dodo Nkishi and vocalist (and fellow Sonig artist) Niobe – producing and writing the record over a period of three years in their St. Martin studio in Dusseldorf.
In interviews for ‘Radical Connector’, St. Werner and Toma have stated that one of their primary aims when making this record was to edit and manipulate vocal performances so that they could be used as ‘sound events’, for example as rhythmic elements, while at the same time forming a cut-up lyrical ‘pop’ narrative. It’s this sort of hyper-meticulous approach to constructing these ‘songs’ that sets ‘Radical Connectors’ aside from previous MOM albums, while also ensuring that a move towards ‘pop songs’ doesn’t mean that the duo have watered-down their trademark cutting-edge approach at all – while your ass may bump to these tracks, your cerebrum is going to be fully occupied with simply marveling at (and trying to keep up with) the amount of stuff that’s going on here.
Opening track ‘Mine Is In Yours’ features Dodo Nkishi’s weirdly warped, digitally-manipulated and contorted vocal sung over a throbbing shifting backing of mutant hiphop beats and random bleeps, before a melodic guitar riff starts to build up in the mix, anchoring the track towards a gorgeous breakdown where Nkishi softly sings “the story continues, but this time, it’s guided by…” and all the complex electronics drop right out, leaving only a lone strummed guitar. After crashing back through buzzing synths, vocal yelps and crashing jacknifed beats, things lead into first single ‘Wipe That Sound’, which if there’s any justice at all in this world will be remembered as one of 04’s standout mutant-pop moments, fusing a gigantic ‘Witness The Fitness’ style hiphop backbeat and wobbling seismic synth-bass, with Nkishi’s dancehall-toast ragga “cut the gain” vocal riding atop everything, just before it slides into a incredible Prince-esque vocoder breakdown over some of the most skewed RNB beats you’ll hear this year.
‘Spaceship’ drops some of the most serrated and complex beats yet, before shifting into a bass-heavy UK garage-influenced groove that sounds like the offspring of a shotgun marriage between Funkstorung and the Roll Deep Crew, cutting and splicing Niobe’s punky vocal yells (which call to mind Ari Up from The Slits) over undulating bass drops and scissor-sharp snares, before ‘Send Me Shivers’ pushes aside the head-snapping rush of digital fury in favour of some comparative calm, Niobe’s pitch-manipulated vocal riding over deep ambient synths, broken-step Herbert-esque house beats, while equally balancing its sense of string-driven drama with some nice jazz-tinged elegance. ‘Blood Comes’ meanwhile sounds like something Prince and NIN’s Trent Reznor could have created after a long night in the studio, with Nkishi’s contorted soul-funk vocal twisting its way through a jagged backing of sinister synth-grooves that escalate into some ‘Closer-esque’ hydraulic beats and Nikishi’s vocoded “It’s interrupted” refrain riding against a backing vocal that’s straight out of ‘The Fragile.’
‘The End’ judders open with some head-nodding glitchhop crunch, scissoring beats rocking back and forth alongside mammoth bass, while Niobe’s torch-song vocal trails its way across, propelled by feathery guitar strokes and warm flute tones during a quiet segue where all the electronics drop away, only to emerge with even more ferocity towards the track’s end, synths buzzing and smashed beats slamming along next to curiously chilled-out Stereolab-esque vocal harmonies and strings – it’s a curious combination that’s a bit like bacon and maple syrup pancakes; it shouldn’t really work, but does so beautifully.
‘Detected Beats’ slides some downtempo cut and shuffled live drums over a groovy downtempo backing of warm keyboard tones and oboes, creating a nice fusion of glitchy unpredictable beats with a live band feel that calls to mind Thrill Jockey experimentalists Tortoise (particularly when the vibraphone melodies roll in), while ‘All The Old Powers’ brings on perhaps this album’s most contorted, distorted and just plain dark moment, with Nkishi’s crushed-up and mutilated MC vocals battling their way through a dense pathway of trash-can beats, ripping sounds and spidery clicks that lead into eerie Techno Animal-esque ambient droning. Finally, epic eight-minute track ‘Evoke An Object’ closes this album, as well as offering one its most dancefloor-friendly moments, warm jazzy live instrumentation and Niobe’s acrobatic vocal (which at times calls to mind Bjork) curving its way over a relentless rhythmic backing of crisp breakbeats and flanging synth swells.
‘Radical Connector’ is a stunning new album from Mouse On Mars that shows the consistently-surprising duo unveiling one of their biggest stylistic deviations to date – and one that’s bound to have some diehard MOM fans scratching their heads upon first listening. Perhaps one of the best comparison points in recent times to this album is Funkstorung’s ‘Disconnected’ album of earlier this year which showed the German duo tailoring their complex digital soundclash towards more song-oriented tracks. Like this aforementioned record, ‘Radical Connector’ clearly illustrates that MOM’s skewed take on what constitutes ‘pop’ was never ever going to be the same as everybody else’s. While this album is guaranteed to have you nodding your head from the first few seconds, and is definitely MOM’s most immediately ‘accessible’ record so far, there’s still some furious head-snapping beat maths going on in there which may have the less contorted-beat inclined running for cover – but then again, listening to MOM isn’t meant to be a predictable experience. Highly recommended.