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Album Of The Week

Carefully Selected Angles: Mouse On Mars’ Dimensional People
John Doran , April 12th, 2018 06:40

The Düsseldorf duo celebrate 25 years in the game with their 11th album. It’s completely satisfying, occasionally thrilling, and their best work in a decade, says John Doran

What are Mouse On Mars? How do you define what they do? Jan St Werner and Andi Toma may have formed in 1993 as an ambient techno duo but this nebulous classification gets stressed beyond breaking point well before the release of their constantly morphing third LP, Autoditacker in 1997, and it’s beyond useless by the release of Idiology at the start of this century.

While often labelled IDM, I tended to think of them as post-rock, once they adopted live instrumentation at least. In Jeanette Leech’s (fabulous) Fearless: The Making Of Post-Rock, however, they only warrant two very brief mentions despite them being fellow travellers of Stereolab and Seefeel. Perhaps there was something a little bit too exuberant about MOM for the serious business of post-rock. The title of the band’s 2003 EP anthology Rost Pocks suggests that they themselves thought the genre was a bit stuffy. Or maybe it’s because they were dyed in the wool dance heads who started venturing out in inventive ways into the worlds of jazz, rock and pop - rather than musicians making similarly inventive journeys in the opposite direction - that they have never been considered canonical. However, once playing ‘real’ instruments, they clearly met the Simon Reynolds post-rock criteria of a band exploring an “interface between real time, hands-on playing and the use of digital effects and enhancement”. (I don’t buy them as IDM personally, despite their dance music being the product of intelligence - this album was launched at a symposium called ’Dissolve Music’, delivered at MIT where St Werner is a visiting lecturer, for god’s sake.)

Leech does provide us with an illuminating quote by St Werner from 1995 about their philosophy: “It’s about the spaces, what’s behind the obvious. About setting obvious information to communicate other information; it’s about structures, space, grooves, perspectives, seeing things from lots of different angles. It’s not about melody or harmony. Those are tricks, like shaking hands. When you meet somebody, you shake hands to say: I touch you, I accept you. This is what the music attempts. The ‘song’ offers a way in; a way of organising, of communicating.”

This is an excellent way of analysing what they do, and if you listen to all of their albums consecutively you’ll see there have been several dynamic shifts in how much space has been located and how much they have dialled back or forwards the amount and speed of the information they need to communicate. Certainly when you hear Dimensional People for the first time, it’s clear that things are being seen from fewer but more carefully selected angles.

Don’t panic, I doubt they’ll ever lose their restlessness. In recent years we’ve had the WOW mini LP - which gives you a thrashing with the rolled-up rulebook of trap, bass music and acid - and the altogether more zesty and ear-boggling Parastrophics, both on Monkeytown. These two records, though enjoyable, were slightly zanier than the galloping and thorough D&B, electro and noise rock deconstructions of Varcharz (2006). But perhaps tellingly the only absolute copper-bottomed, you-absolutely-must-re-enter-your-burning-flat-to-grab-this release of pure brilliance they’ve been involved with in the lifetime of this website is Tromatic Reflexxions by Von Südenfed. This album, which was clearly knocked up and out in a comparatively short amount of time, is an astounding piece of work. In 2007 Andi Toma and Jan St Werner reprised their 2004 ‘Wipe That Sound’ collaboration with Mark E Smith to produce something that stands among the best three records The Fall recorded this century. (After applying analytic jurisprudence to the question of grannys and bongos of course, a Fall record is exactly what the album judged as.) Their only A1 LP of the last 12 years... until now that is, as Dimensional People is an extremely satisfying and at times thrilling excursion into 21st-century post-rock.

When you go back to them now, some of their earlier albums give the impression that their ambition wasn’t always particularly healthy in some weird spiritual/aesthetic way. Mouse On Mars can come across like a couple of frazzled operatives working in a nightmarish culture factory whose job is to open a heavy cast iron door set into the side of a huge industrial pipe. Tasked with staring directly into the white-hot, ever-mutational, hyper-accelerated plasma flow of all popular (and unpopular) music of that period they chart the flow in real time in order to create a bewildering simulacra of the experience. But the jarring surreality of their observations, drunk on what they are capable of, the itchy hyper-modernity of what they are occasionally compelled to do suggests an abandonment of sense and cohesion. At times Mouse On Mars removed their welders’ helmets all the better to study the blinding flow. The 90s were, of course, a time of great flux and there was oh-so-much going on. One can only imagine the catastrophic effects wrought on unprotected faces… eyeballs vibrating, capillaries bursting with the effort, tear ducts weeping rivulets of blood, inflamed corneas, irises straining as pupils shrink to pinholes but to no avail, as retinas scorch and then blacken. A severe case of arc eye all round.

Dimensional People sees Mouse On Mars adopt the same curious role of intense observers, operatives, reflectors, processors; it’s just that these days, the flow is a little slower. A little less white hot. A little less in constant violent flux. Culture has changed, not Mouse On Mars. This is, audibly, a ‘new’ album though. You can hear from the 145bpm machine-gun-regular opening hits of ‘Dimensional People Part I’ - it’s actually the heavily manipulated sound of a robot hitting a woodblock - that this is an album that is conversant with footwork. (NB: this is not a juke album in the same way that Mouse On Mars have never made a drum & bass LP or acid house LP, per se.) But this is the background theme and tempo that binds the album into a unified whole. (There are no breaks between tracks, they mainly flow from one into another like a DJ mix; the track titles ‘Dimensional People’ parts I, II & III and ‘Parliament Of Aliens’ parts I, II & III, reinforce this idea.) The desire to cover all of the ground all at once, is less foregrounded. The crazy, atom-smashed computer game soundtrack effect - the stylistic tic that prevents some from engaging with MOM - is still present, just mixed more skillfully into the whole.

With fewer contemporary stylistic inputs, the temptation offered by giddy synthesis of jarring novel genres has slipped away, but only to a certain degree. The many unusual sonic combinations that remain have been offset by a giant leap forward in production so the innovations are deeper, they unfold in more subtle temporal and spatial terms but are also more affecting. How this album takes us from footwork beats to psychedelic Philly hip-hop to chiming minimalism to vocal-processed choral music to medicated R&B to dubby hyper-processed Zydeco to pure Balearic bliss in the context of a single piece of work rather than a collection of tracks is something wonderful. Much of this, no doubt, is down to their self-designed MoMinstruments music software and their use of D&B Audiotecknik’s new spatial mixing technology known as object-based mixing, which allow them to precisely place the huge amount of component sounds into a less cluttered 3D environment.

The LP’s working title reveals something important. Formerly known as New Konstruktivist Socialism, it manages to create a previously unimaginable cohesive whole, despite it featuring nearly 50 guest musicians all providing whatever they feel like over the course of many entirely separate recording sessions. No doubt many other reviews of this album will be tripping over themselves to tell you in the first paragraph, in breathless terms, that Dimensional People features shed lord Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Zach Condon of Beirut, Spank Rock, Aaron and Bryce Dessner of bewilderingly popular indie rabble The National, Swamp Dogg, Eric D Clarke, Lisa Hannigan, Amanda Blank, Sam Amidon and all of Ensemble Musikfabrik as guests, as if this is somehow the USP of the album. So if you want to read how ‘Dimensional People Part III’ is by far and away Vernon’s most experimental statement to date, with his vocal take partially deconstructed into glossolalia punctuated with heavily harmonised and hyperprocessed lines such as: “I’m ready pass the torch, it’s not your fault, it’s natural.” If you want to read how a deconstructed electro banger with cosmic pedal steel and the meticulous choral processing of Zach Condon’s voice create an airy and elevated bed for Amanda Blank’s self-explanatory rap on ‘Foul Mouth’. If you want to read how soul survivor Swamp Dogg closes the album reminiscing over the simply gorgeous Balearic pop of ‘Sydney In A Cup’, one of the best songs so far this year, then you’ll just have to look it up on some other site.

This guest list is, in most ways, the least interesting aspect about the album. Dimensional People is not an ensemble piece or a late-period Chemical Brothers or UNKLE LP, the kind that rolls out an algorithmically robust cast of indie singers and rappers to give the project high engagement in different demographics while also ensuring higher chart placings for singles. All traditional kvetching about The National aside, everyone turns in a sterling performance here, in the sense that they add fine stitches to a glorious tapestry that is much greater than them or their contributions. No one sticks their head above the parapet and this is much to their credit because - according to MOM at least - they were given free rein to take whatever role they wanted in proceedings, be it becoming or providing “a narrator, a perfect moment, a jam, an ensemble member, an abstract sound, a multiple persona, a mood, a soloist”. It’s astounding that this album didn’t end up a mad-man’s breakfast, let alone turn out as good as it has. Or maybe it’s not that surprising at all as this isn’t really the collaborative album it’s trumped up to be. The guests have provided sample sources which have, in many cases, been processed out of all recognition by the application of cutting edge technology. It’s sampladelic not collaborative.

As usual, heavy restriction is the mother of all creative invention. The aforementioned bpm, a dictated rhythm scheme and the use of one harmonic spectrum obviously kept everything more or less in line - but that can’t be the whole story, can it? If you concentrate hard enough, can you detect the presence of a spectral hand with fingers stained nicotine ochre and amber guiding proceedings with the merest hint of ghostly threat?

As St Werner told The Wire magazine in 2007: “[Mark E Smith] was very influential on the way we work... We’d maybe want to elaborate on something and he’d say, ‘No, leave it like that, leave it that raw, don’t fiddle around with it, it’s all there.’”

If you turn this up full and listen hard enough perhaps also you can hear deep in the background a phantasmagorical voice hewed with a Prestwich grain grumping: “Would you fuckin’ get it together instead of showing off?”

What a thoroughly enjoyable experience it is to immerse yourself totally in this record.