The music scene, like politics, is made up of hundreds of groups, factions, committees, subcommittees, and the like. Some artists are bound together by the labels with which they choose to affiliate; others are simply forging ahead with common principles and accomplishing the same end results with the material they produce. In the field of crossover electronica, certain artists dominate the commercial intake of the genre simply by honing their sound — often via the outsourcing of remixing and production, as well as the release of accessible or danceable records — until they become a brand name; they then ascend to the electronic aristocracy.
The international scope of this group is vast enough to establish them as a sort of United Nations: representing Iceland is Björk and her countless gaggle of collaborators and knob-twiddlers; sitting next to her on one side are the French duo Air, and on the other side, the UK duo Zero 7. Norway’s Röyksopp are at the table, as is Austria’s breakout Christian Fennesz. (Not surprisingly, since the year 2000, America deems the UN’s policies too trivial in which to participate.) Germany’s ambassador was once designated as the stuttering hip-hop act Funkstörung, but their disappearance for half a decade left a glaring vacancy. As such, it is a perfect time for the ever-riveting Mouse on Mars to join the ranks of the popular techno elite, as they will undoubtedly achieve with their new record Radical Connector.
The fact that Mouse on Mars have actually had to cripple their sprawling, creative sound in order to complete their ascendancy is a testament to how forward-thinking and fresh-sounding they have always been. Radical Connector, on the whole, sees the trio (longtime axis Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner, with drummer/vocalist Dodo Nkishi) approaching Earth for the first time in a decade. The opening track “Mine Is in Yours” features a relatively conservative song structure, with Nkishi’s audible vocals culminating in a nearly sing-along chorus; only the noisier details in the background recall the band’s grandest prior success, 2001’s insane “Actionist Respoke”. Otherwise, the track offers very little of the last album’s (Idiology) unpredictable chaotic prog rock, though it does act as a reasonably apropos representation of what follows.
“Wipe That Sound” is much stronger, a flat-out R&B party stomp with a circular rhythm and more soulful vocals by Nkishi that would recall any of Basement Jaxx’s anthems if they were ground in a garbage disposal for a couple of minutes. Apparently, additional vocals have been added by the Fall’s Mark E. Smith and will be finding their way to a 12-inch-single in mid-October; like adding jalapeño peppers to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the results should be interesting.
“Blood Comes” is the undeniable centerpiece of the record, however, and it suitably features Nkishi’s strongest contributions. An aggressive butt-shaking tour de force, with another circular rhythm (enforced by the litany of “All around!”) that gradually evolves over time by looping different vocal phrases in short intervals, the song grows noisier until the track breaks right before falling into the most memorable loop yet, locking onto an inescapable hook. The final overlapping of the vocal bits that close the piece marks the track as the supreme work of Mouse on Mars, the perfect final touch to an already overwhelmingly successful track.
Guest vocalist Niobe, who alternates between soulful siren and sexy chanteuse, is featured on several of the album’s other numbers. “Spaceship”, perhaps Radical Connector‘s most interesting track, is built on loops of irregular rhythms, not unlike Autechre’s early work. Initially, the vocals sound sampled, recalling a hint of trip-hop at its Portishead best, but the busy backing tracks and effects that consume Niobe instead give the impression that Mouse on Mars have just taken off again, leaving ’90s electronica at the launch pad, barely visible through the porthole. “Send Me Shivers” uses Niobe in a smoother context; though the song is unadorned, pretty, and Björk-like for the first minute, the rhythm then kicks in and settles on the type of irresistible IDM groove with which Mouse on Mars have always flirted but never quite fully embraced.
This is the track with the most potential for an extended life in heavy club rotation. “The End” lowers the bar considerably by reining in the chaos and using space to deliver something both powerful and sparse. Niobe’s repeated lyrical announcement, “The end is here!” is less ominous than it is resigned, but the booming, near-explosive percussion that supports her says more than she ever could. Mouse on Mars have successfully adhered to an important distinction regarding electronic music: to utilize vocalists as additional detail and atmosphere without ever fully depending on them.
The final third of Radical Connector relies on the meandering experimentation that carried the group’s previous records so vitally, but in this context, the songs simply feel weaker. “Detected Beats” is almost old school for Mouse on Mars, as are most beat-driven tracks about beats themselves, while “All the Old Powers” is dark and distorted but equally uneventful, evoking the deep space that brings about such inertia. By Niobe’s final appearance, on the closing “Evoke an Object”, she too has become another object floating in space. At least Nkishi’s slight chanted vocals on “All the Old Powers” have something in common with Maxim’s interjections on the Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land, once again invoking a past era of electronic music as if being viewed from a great distance. By establishing the idea that post-rave techno has now been around long enough to develop its own sense of self-awareness and ironic detachment, as well as presenting a handful of their strongest songs to date, Mouse on Mars have truly become a part of the international electronic aristocracy.