The arrival of Von Südenfed, a collaboration between Mark E. Smith and German electronic duo Mouse on Mars, should come as no surprise to seasoned Fall fans. Smith’s been referencing all things Teutonic for years in songs like “German Athlete Cured”, “Bremen Nacht”, and “Das Vulture Ans Ein Nutter-Wain”. So too throughout the ’90s the Fall’s sound occasionally flirted along the margins of club-culture, most successfully on Levitate‘s “The Masquerade”. Throw into the mix Smith’s recent ire at what he sees as LCD Soundsystem’s lucrative dance-punk appropriation of elements of the Fall “sound”, and it looks like a marriage that was just waiting to happen. Mouse on Mars’ Jan St. Werner compares the scope of the album to that of an imaginary pirate radio station, ranging widely through different styles and genres. This “everything but the kitchen sink” approach makes for an uneven yet compelling album, one that gets by on the relentless energy of its best tracks even though there are certainly a couple of duds. Smith himself certainly sounds revitalised in his new collaborative roll, relieved of his duties as tyrant-in-chief to whatever brave musicians are operating in the Fall’s ever-changing line-up this year.
“Fledermaus Can’t Get It” is an aggressive opener, a distorted cacophony of squelching keyboards and skull-thudding bass with Smith at his usual hectoring best. As in many of the songs, the tune itself is not particularly memorable; it works rather by bludgeoning you into submission with its sheer relentless energy. “The Rhinohead”, on the other hand, is the most tuneful song on the album, with Smith eschewing the shouting for a sweetly (for him) sung glam-rock chorus. On this track St. Werner and partner Andi Toma wisely keep their electronic effects to a minimum, letting the tune do its work. There are points where you could almost be listening to one of Pet Shop Boys’ more avant-garde B-sides.
“Flooded” is a warped, skittering affair detailing the revenge of a DJ who finds himself double-booked at a nightclub and floods it in retaliation. Despite some impressively crunching basslines, the tune never really takes off. Along with “The Rhinohead”, “Family Feud” is the other standout cut. A trancey, clattering, and edgy track, it highlights Mouse on Mars’ willingness to push their electronic gadgetry towards a densely distorted cacophony that is still underpinned by compelling rhythms. Smith even briefly breaks into a rap at one point, which is always good value.
Most surprising of all is “Chicken Yiamas”, which employs acoustic guitars to accompany Smith’s anecdote about being forced to boil a chicken against his will, an act which drives him to a full blooded screaming of “Yiamas! Yiamas! Yiamas!” over a background of noise which sounds like a recording of a pond full of mating frogs. What this is all about, who knows? This is the closest Smith has come in his 30-year career to sounding like his favourite group: Can. I guess that was probably the idea.
Elsewhere there are couple of tunes (“Duckrog”, “Jback Lois Lane”) that sound like the product of three blokes arsing around with a bunch of effects in the studio, giving the end product a stupid title and thinking “that’ll do for the album then”. Indeed “Jback Lois Lane” sounds like Smith and either St. Werner or Toma having a studio argument accompanied by the droning whirr of a lawnmower engine and er, that’s it. Closing track “Dearest Friends” (which shows what Smith the vocalist can really do when he puts his mind to it) is a tenderly sung lament to deceased friends set to a warm and lilting African-inflected guitar melody.
Does Tromatic Reflexxions work as an album? No. Is it fun to listen to? Most definitely, if you make sure you skip the pointless doodles. Mouse on Mars employ a healthy amount of genre-defying wizardry that constantly keeps the listener wondering what to expect next. Over the music Smith rambles, shouts, threatens, grumbles and croons: two parts inspiring to one part infuriating. The end result is heaps better than this year’s Fall release, the undercooked and rambling Reformation Post-TLC. Perhaps he should do this more often.