Mouse on Mars
label: Thrill Jockey
by Colin James Nagy
Mouse on Mars have, throughout their ten-year career, managed to avoid falling into any easily identifiable electronic music niche. They simply don't sound like anyone else. Idiology, released in 2001, saw the duo flexing their collective artistic might while hinting at the infinite tangents that their sound could take. Perhaps most importantly, that album sounds as relevant today as it did when it was initially released. As I listen today, after becoming more versed with the genre, the pop element is more apparent and, in retrospect, extremely prescient. The record combined live instrumentation and vocals with an electronic dexterity that many musicians today, though armed with Reason, Ableton and other significantly more advanced production tools, haven't easily replicated.
The two responsible for this unique sound and prolific output? Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, two Cologne-based musicians who started in 1994 seeking to fuse electronic music and philosophy. Though most highbrow avant-garde projects of the sort are relegated to sound installations and small labels with even smaller pressings, Mouse on Mars have spawned ten releases since their initial project on labels ranging from the London-based Too Pure to the vinyl-only Sonig before landing at the forward-thinking Thrill Jockey imprint, best known for Nobukazu Takemura and Tortoise.
Radical Connector is the product of three years labor in their St. Martin studio in Dusseldorf. It manages to push things forward again, rising far above the chin-scratching, only-listenable-when-catatonically-stoned IDM/leftfield category that so many conceptual electronic releases find themselves shelved under. Case in point: "Wipe that Sound" is a disco-inspired oddity, and though slightly slower than the pace of a typical 4/4 house tune, it manages to compensate with its layered funk-synth lines, processed, chopped-up vocals, and an unlikely swagger. It's machine-made funk at its finest; the groove hits you immediately, and only upon further listens do you realize the layers brimming with intricate edits and cuts that fill in the rest. It's suited equally for dancing as it is intellectual consumption.
"Detected Beats" features the most satisfying percussion on the record; it maintains a delightfully textured, organic and live-played groove (courtesy of longtime collaborator Dodo Nkishi) with razor-sharp edits that set things slightly off-kilter. "Spaceship" is Mouse on Mars at their most playful, as they flirt with a not-quite-two-step Basement Jaxx-style dance-floor tune that's as zany as it is musically credible beneath the hedonistic veneer. "Send Me Shivers" features lovely vocals from Niobe, a change from the chopped and glitched contributions from St. Werner and Toma. On the track, Niobe's delay-tinged tones are nestled in light synths before being suddenly nudged to float over a bubbly beat, later pitch-shifted and toyed with as the song progresses.
Given their track record, the sheer quality and musical vision of this record doesn't surprise in the least. It shows maturity and focus from 2003's Glam while retaining the same playful ear for pop, veiled behind avant-garde synth noodlings. The duo remains impossible to pin down and have managed to yet again stake their claim on a sovereign chunk of the genre, not likely to be encroached upon anytime soon. For these reasons, as well as their clever juxtaposition of the ass-shaking and the thoughtful, Radical Connector will undoubtedly make my shortlist for record of the year.