Mouse on Mars, aka Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, have been together since 1993, playing an ever-evolving but instantly identifiable blend of exotic ambient, urban electronica, post rock and wonky disco.
Parastrophics (Monkeytown Records) is their eleventh studio album, if we include their Instrumentals roundup and the 2007 Von Sudenfed collaboration with Fall vocalist Mark E. Smith. It significantly advances the duo’s alchemical attempts to blend contemporary electronica and beat-centric pop music, even if the course they’re following has more twists than a bag of snakes.
Radical Connector (2004) and Von Sudenfed’s Tromatic Reflexxions explored alien tech-house and acid disco (the former was relatively conventional by MoM’s usual standards), but 2006 album Varcharz was a step back to an earlier stage in their evolution, the tougher strain of hybrid IDM of 2001’s Idiology, subject to radical and often abrasive formal distortions.
Parastrophics manages to synthesize just about every stylistic base MoM have covered (excluding last year’s surprise orchestral concerts, which I’ll come to shortly) into a dazzlingly hyperkinetic starburst of chopped and skewed club music, its songs discrete bundles of rich, sugar-coated chaos. Yet it’s a remarkably coherent album, albeit rather full-on at first hearing.
The closest point of comparison might be Rustie’s critically-lauded debut Glass Swords, though for my money MoM’s effort is the more radical in both innovation and entertainment stakes. Since MoM have lived through, and indeed been pioneers in the evolution of IDM, they have a much broader frame of reference, and Rustie’s works sound understandably gauche by comparison. Both albums revel in rhythmic twists and collagist mash-ups, but it’s the characteristic humanity of MoM music, a warmth which runs clear through all of their works from Iaora Tahiti onwards, which makes the difference.
But if MoM still carries the torch for exotica, for dub, rave and even the currently out-of-favour good-times mashup aesthetic of big beat, Parastrophics proves that they still have ears wide open and a raucous sense of what’s vital right here, right now.
Mouse on Mars bring Parastrophics to London’s Village Underground on 20 April 2012. Dalston Sound wouldn’t miss it. Their Dingwalls gig in ’97 was one of the most uplifting I’ve ever experienced (thanks in no small part to the involvement of drummer and vocalist Dodo NKishi, an integral part of the Mouse On Mars sound as captured on the Live04 album). As good as subsequent arts venue concerts have been, I’m looking forward to seeing them again in a more intimate space.
Until last year, Mouse on Mars seemed to belong to my listening past. The work with which they made their mark was roughly synonymous with the clicks ‘n’ cuts era, and they seemed to drop off the radar altogether after 2007. But in September 2011 they debuted “Paeanumnion”, an ambitious new orchestral collaboration with the musikFabrik orchestra and André de Ridder. Two months later they repeated the performance at London’s Barbican, in a concert that was one of the highlights of my musical year.
The concert began with a spatialised multi-channel playback of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge” for electronics and voice, a genre-breaking blend of elektronische Musik and Musique Concrète (musikFabrik are Stockhausen’s steadfast champions). The main support was Oval, aka Markus Popp, St. Werner’s partner in Microstoria. Popp has made his own return to form recently, with his O album and OvalDNA career overview. His terrific Barbican set took his latest blend of glitch rhythms and acoustic guitar samples, and amplified the beat quotient.
In the main event, MoM played surrounded by the orchestra. The score for “Paeanumnion” derives from orchestral samples and electronic sounds provided by Toma and St Werner. In realising it, the orchestra opened themselves up to MoM’s live transformations. As with the Parastrophics material, the various movements of “Paeanumnion” covered radically variegated stylistic terrain, from subtle chamber passages to others where MoM’s processing took over. It was, surprisingly, as successful in its very, very different way as Van Dyke Parks’ orchestrations for Joanna Newsom.
Paeanumnion (excerpt 1) – Mouse on Mars with musikFabrik
Paeanumnion (excerpt 3) – Mouse on Mars with musikFabrik