Electronic music dates quickly, and IDM—newer and often more reliant on the cutting edge—dates even more quickly. In just the last 10 years, we’ve watched the rise (and debatably the fall) of DSP, a reaction trend towards more organic edits, and the incorporation of glitch techniques back into pop music. The first time I heard the guitar parts skipping and jumping like scratched vinyl in a Madonna song I swear it took me a hour to find where my jaw had rolled and lodged itself under the couch. But I’m digressing. IDM has changed, yes, but what we need to consider today is where it was before all of that.
In the latter half of the 90s, while big beat swept in and out of popular attention, as melodic IDM and drill ‘n’ bass were staking their claim on a corner of limelight through a seemingly constant stream of groundbreaking releases on (predominantly European) labels like Warp and Skam and even (American label) Astralwerks, a slew of more fractured, minimal releases were creeping out on labels like Mille Plateaux, Thrill Jockey, and the nascent Sonig. Sonig was the creation of Jan St. Werner, consummate sound scientist, half of Mouse on Mars (with Andi Toma), half of Microstoria (with Oval’s Markus Popp), all of Lithops. Lithops occupied a space between those other projects, drawing traces of Mouse on Mars’ developing flirtation with pop, traces of Microstoria’s disorder and noise, and much of both of their microscopic attention to detail. With Queries, collecting hard-to-find vinyl releases and previously unreleased Lithops material from 1995 and 1999, we can revisit that period in full.
The tracks on this collection lurch and skitter on fragmented percussion and synthesized blips, only occasionally coalescing into melody. The drums, though often very rhythmic, feel less like the dance beat-derived creations in most other electronic music and more like a clicking tapped out with a spoon on the pipes beneath the sink: faint, obscure, curious. A murmur of warm electronic noise often washes in and out of the background, submerging and exposing tiny details of the mix. Utterly minimal, Queries is packed with elements that seem reluctant to step into the foreground or assume precedence. For a compilation of old work, it’s very consistent, but also very distinct to the time in which it was created, a time when sound manipulation was often more about the excitement of the act itself than about the product. IDM has changed, and this is a postcard from another era.
The best songs here are perhaps the ones that draw most heavily from St. Werner’s work with Mouse on Mars; there’s a certain timelessness that comes when a piece is allowed to fall into a steady groove. “Tubino See-Through”, for instance, features percussion that, for once, adopts a faintly industrial clang and actual high hats, coupled with a variety of rhythmic glitch effects we well as clear, smooth keyboard chords allowed to well up and out into the open between the beats, for an effect reminiscent of classic Mouse on Mars “pop” song “Pinwheel Herman”. In “Moggast”, a fragile, repeated key sequence is just the adhesive needed to hold together a menagerie of improvised analog noise. “Blasmusik” balances beautiful washes of line noise and electric confusion with a faint melodic theme, granting an emotional weight that can be difficult to find in the less grounded works.
Taken as an album, Queries is an interesting document of a developing sound, but one that is also trapped in that development. A decade later, I sometimes find myself marveling not at the carefully worked soundscapes, but that they can wind for so long without seeming to progress. When these production techniques were created, they were groundbreaking, now they’re expected—and expected to be put to broader use, an unfortunate but inevitable result of their application in subsequent work, both in St. Werner’s own projects and those that followed. I recall that the 2003 reissue of Mouse on Mars’ 1996 Glam stumbled similarly. Times change and shade our perception of older work. With reissues, nostalgia for the original may be some help, and perhaps will be here, for listeners who heard the original Lithops records providing some of the material. For others, however, new listeners and old listeners more taken with more recent St. Werner work, Queries may seem more like a creaking museum piece. Such listeners may be happy to learn, however, that the latest developments in the Lithops sound can be heard, for contrast, on the upcoming album of new material slated for release by Thrill Jockey this fall.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.