Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that so many electronic musicians betray the same essential conservatism and lack of imagination as any other variety of artist. After all, relatively few creators in any musical genre—or, to go further, any medium, whether visual art, dance, theater, etc.—display a sensibility which is truly new or unique. What makes the slew of bland “electronica” albums from the past few years especially disappointing has more to do with the hype attached to the form; this was to be the future of music, the final dirt on the coffin of rock ‘n’ roll, the soundtrack to our 2001 daydreams.
A shame, then, that the promise of a music not tied to the terrestrial, unconstrained by reliance on traditional instrumentation, limited only by the creativity of its makers, should find that last hurdle one step too high. But not a total shame, obviously. As in even the often-buried tradition of guitar-bass-drums rock, innovators and crackpots have risen to the challenge of creating something genuinely new. Near the top of the pyramid stand Mouse on Mars, the nine-year-old German duo of Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner, who have released some of the most challenging, beautiful, and, yes, imaginative music—in any genre—of the past few years. After four proper albums (as well as a slew of EPs, soundtracks, and remixes), including last year’s widely praised Niun Niggung, Mouse on Mars seem to be leaving the rest of the pack behind, as their work becomes, in both form and content, increasingly complex and emotionally resonant.
The new Idiology takes the acoustic experiments of Niun Niggung even further, and it’s this combination of electronic and “traditional” music—melding keyboards and synthesizers with french horns and guitars and trumpets into a seamless whole—that points the way through the dead-ends of most electronica. Just listen to “Presence”, the album’s third song: a sweetly manipulated vocal weaves around a piano and quiet synths until, in the middle of the track, a new world explodes. The second half of “Presence” stands as perhaps the most successful, powerful, hybrid yet released by this group, as swelling strings and brass move hand-in-hand with machine-made squiggles in a precise symphony. “Illking”, the following track, employs a beautifully evocative cello in another quiet triumph.
But let’s go back to the beginning. Idiology starts with a ratcheting piece of fractured techno, “Actionist Respoke” (also the first single, although very few FM stations will find it radio-ready), that includes heavily manipulated vocals from Mouse on Mars’s drummer, Dodo Nkishi. The lyric reads, “I is just what you say you to,” but meaning becomes irrelevant as the vocals take their place among an ever-shifting rhythmic foundation. Static and gurgling bass add a dub-like feel to the first two tracks, which shifts in a surprisingly natural way into the acoustic-laced work of “Presence” and “Illking”. The strands that form these first four tracks return through the course of the album, in the form of harder beats, hummable melodies, frenetic synthesizer patterns, and carefully crafted songs. The albums moves into harsher territory as it progresses, with “First: Break” and “Introduce” borrowing techniques from the Warp Records school of glitch; but the album closers, “Paradical” and “Fantastic Analysis”, provide another sure-handed lesson in alchemy between electronics and humanity.
A distinction separating Mouse on Mars from most producers of electronica has to do with the frequency of their good ideas, and their willingness to let these ideas go: while much techno, drum ‘n’ bass, etc., is content to find a groove and stick with it for five minutes, Idiology never settles for long. (Only “Introduce” seems stuck in a rut, and even it breaks out occasionally into something we haven’t heard before.) Pieces of a hook, repeating string patterns, and entrancing beats are taken up and dropped with the confidence of a band that has no fear of running out of new things to say. Mouse on Mars place their music at the service of the song, and this refusal of constraint ultimately stands as their greatest achievement.