Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Mouse on Mars - WOW
Monkeytown, 2012

Now this is more like it! I will admit to being underwhelmed by Mouse on Mars' first release of 2012, Parastrophics. What their record label describes as "a life-affirming and constantly surprising album which is crammed with ideas, exuberance and sheer kinetic energy," I found to be kind of a slog. For all the talk of songs in "compulsive new shapes, full of glitter, intrigue and addictive detail"--not to mention "an elegance . . . which speaks, whisper it, of maturity" while being "as playful as ever"--Parastrophics just isn't a fun listen for me. And if I can't have fun by (and while) listening to Mouse on Mars, what's the point of putting on music in the first place? Thankfully, WOW delivers the goods in spades (if nothing else, and there is much else, the cover of WOW is gorgeous compared to that of Parastrophics). Indeed, I sincerely doubt that I've had more fun with an album this year. Certainly this is the only album that has compelled me to laugh out loud in public while listening. It's frantic and ridiculous and conjures up images of hilarious machines run amok. Misters St. Werner and Toma even seem to realise some counterbalance was needed to Parastrophics, as the press release that accompanies the album notes "You can almost feel the tension being released" and positions WOW as a burst of creativity, "a spontaneous reaction to all those hours of studio labour" involved in the five year gestation for the followup to 2006's Varcharz.

Ostensibly a club record--and, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the track, an engagement with bass music's developments since 2006--WOW really is sheer kinetic energy, a blast of primary-coloured rubber band textures and the wobbliest, squelchiest bass possible that twitches and stumbles over itself in its headlong rush only to turn a somersault and suddenly reappear, smiling and heading in the opposite direction. That might not be enough for the kids looking for a drop, but it's awfully hard not to find the movement grin-inducing, the sense of spontaneity liberating, and the good-times vibes of it all infectious. Thus, the moments of off-kilter bump and grind on "APE" feel less out of place than joyous reminders that you have hips and should be using them, and the push-pull, stop-start groove of "VAX" proves as hypnotic a headknocker as anything coming out of the Brainfeeder camp while also sounding like half a dozen arcade machines and a full cast of cartoon characters got together for a night on the town. Indeed, the songs start to resemble a Scooby Doo-esque haunted house after awhile, with disembodied voices and cheesy sound effects coming from every direction, and the album's better for it. 

If WOW is in any way a response to bass music (or, and I do hate the phrase, Mouse on Mars' "bass music album," which sounds much too genre tourist-y), it is so only obliquely, more a reminder that the elements that in the last few years have been bolted onto dubstep's frame or smuggled into DJ sets via house or funky or what have you have always been a part of Mouse on Mars' sound. The pounding, repetitious ecstacy of "HYM," for example, is one of the better re-applications of house music I've heard, and, balanced by its aquatic wobbles, feels like a cheeky literalisation of the intersections between dubstep and house over the past few years, until the two elements combine with a loping downtempo melody line that becomes an album highlight. The mile-long and taffy-thick vocals on "CAN" might call to mind Burial's patented vocal manipulations, but he's never been this demented, never sent his listeners off into a funhouse full of helium while strobes flash the colours of the rainbow. With its glamourous surfaces, "PUN" suggests BNJMN's Black Square or SBTRKT's self-titled album, but everything is just a little too busy, too frantic, too willing to spiral out of control to be anyone other than Mouse on Mars. Similarly, if the video game bleeps and bloops of "DOG" recall something that Zomby or Joker might have released a few years ago, they're equally indebted to classic Mouse of Mars from 1995's Iaora Tahiti or 1997's Autoditacker. At this point, it's almost tempting to see Mouse on Mars as their own continuum, quite separate from the hardcore continuum (see also this), but equally likely to loop back around in new permutations and configurations.

Not everything on the album works, though. Five of its thirteen tracks are interstitial moments that link, preface, or conclude the more substantial songs. Outside of the glitchy, pretty "ESO," I find them to be mostly disposable. They do keep the momentum up, allowing the album to flow more like a mix than the collection of wildly disparate tracks that it is, but in the case of opener "SOS" and "BSD," the mood is marred by Dao Anh Khanh, a Vietnamese vocalist here singing (in much the same way that Damo Suzuki--a one time Mouse on Mars collaborator--sings during his most out there moments) in an invented language. Similarly, the closing two tracks, "WOC" and "CAT," are largely pointless, a letdown from the true closer, "SUN," which rides a hiccoughing (literally!) beat to a pretty--if twisted and disoriented--conclusion behind swooning and swooping chords and phone pad arpeggios. In the spirit of fun, though, you can't really begrudge the band a few missteps that sound like a band having a blast and letting ideas run wild.

In light of the six weeks the band spent on it and its much more obvious, lightweight content, it's tempting to view WOW as a less worthy album than Parastrophics, an album that doesn't mean as much, that doesn't really contribute to the conversation surrounding electronic music in 2012 in a significant way. This would be, in my opinion, a serious error. With its manic (and maniacal) energy, WOW feels like a catalyst to creativity, a reminder that two guys making weird, goofy techno music have managed to carve out a pretty distinctive niche for themselves over the last nineteen years. Indeed, WOW manages to contribute to the conversation precisely because of its charm--any engagement or response here feels lowkey, the result of the band hearing something they like and tweaking it to fit into what they already do, rather than grasping at relevance by making themselves over as an example of whatever style is hot (I shudder as I consider Mouse on Mars goes footwork). Without feeling the need to nudge things forward by self-consciously demonstrating their up-to-two-minutes-into-the-future cred, Mouse on Mars have managed to point out that most of the electronic music world hasn't really caught up to what they've been doing their whole career. As WOW ably demonstrates, they're waiting over here with a readymade party whenever anyone feels like joining them. 

1 comment:

  1. Great review. Such a relief to hear them back on form - this is the album I've been waiting for since Niun Niggung.