Jan St.Werner's huge, vibrant Miscontinuum Album is spellbinding -- and could use fewer guests.
Jan St. Werner is plunging further into the abyss of electronic music. What does that mean, exactly? Five minutes alone with Miscontinuum Album will answer that question. This is a strange album, built only with the most isolationist musical prose and spoken word passages that are so vague that they might as well not exist at all. It's over 76 minutes long (the deluxe edition adds three more tracks, bumping the run time to 88 minutes) and there are many passages that can mess with your sense of time overall. As the press release insists, "Miscontinuum Album explores misconceptions of time and memory, inspired by unique acoustic phenomena derived through digital phrasing and musical time stretching techniques." That may sound like a load of hot air, but there is some truth to it. I've listened to Miscontinuum Album many times over and still catch myself thinking "Wait, how long has this freaking track been playing?"
This huge slab of sound appears to have a narrative of some sort, but this half of Mouse on Mars is reluctant to be concise about it. In fact, you could say that this is Miscontinuum Album's downside, its stubbornness to remain obscure. That's too bad because the sounds inside are terrific. Jan St. Werner can really grab hold of a piece of electronic noise and squeeze it into something simultaneously non-musical and hypnotic. Under different circumstances, Miscontinuum Album would get to play out like a seemingly endless flow. But as it is, the flow is frequently interrupted by gaudy libretti written by fellow Microstorian Markus Popp and delivered flatly by Earth guitarist Dylan Carlson. These passages amount to ten minutes of run time in the album, which is relatively short considering how long the album is, but they derail the experience nevertheless. "This is hard to explain; I switch to a delusion. A meticulous, introspective description has to follow here," Carlson croaks in a mutter that rivals the mush-mouthed Ira Glass. When he gets around to mumbling something about "non-Euclidian geometry", I am anything but engaged. This first-person story seems to take pride in going nowhere and about the most interesting thing going for it are the disembodied whispers in the background from either Kathy Alberici or Taigen Kawabe. One of them is responsible for the filtered screams on "Repedron", a mercifully short track in a fortunately long album.
And fortunately, the remainder of Miscontinuum Album does a tremendous job of displacing the listener in big washes of noise. "Schwazade", for instance, features an oscillating effect that I've never heard before in music, a robotic zing that sounds like it's trying to speak. "Cervo" spends its 12-plus minutes luring you in with electronic cicada buzzes and pinging voices in stereo. The final track "Amazonas" makes up a third of Miscontinuum Album with a whopping 25 minutes. And when Jan St. Werner stretches a track out and out like this, he makes sure to stuff it with plenty of changes. Droning minimalism is all fine and good, but he clearly has his mind on other things -- like, "How can I turn a dark sound into a sunny one without anyone noticing?" I don't know how he does it, but he does it.
Miscontinuum Album is a wonderful glimpse into Jan St. Werner's life outside of Mouse on Mars and it would be even better if fewer people were involved -- for it to be a true solo album. But the release's genesis was an "operative live performance in Munich, as well as a radio play". Translating a stage production to mere sound has never been an easy experience for artists. Without having seen the production, all I can offer is that just the mere sound is enough.