ONE THING YOU GOTTA love about the makers of IDM (that's "intelligent dance music"; an alternative term is "armchair techno") is their insistence on keeping song titles so onomatopoeic you needn't bother reaching for metaphors when trying to describe them to a friend. "My favorite Autechre song is 'Bronchusevenmx24,'" you might say. "You know that one? It's the one that sounds like its title."
Mouse on Mars
Niun Niggung (Sonig/Thrill Jockey)
The Placekick EP (Carpark) Quondam Current (Force Inc.)
Mouse on Mars' newest album, Niun Niggung (released on Thrill Jockey February 8 after its European issue last August), does the same thing. What's it sound like? Like niun niggung, with maybe a little krikle-krakle and some dwoob-woob thrown in, plus some chwoom schwaaar and some whoosh-zing on top of it.
Maybe such a flippant summation isn't fair to Mouse on Mars, whose bizarro-world sound-universes are as beguiling as those of anyone else working similar terrain. The Berlin-based duo Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner come up with their own best descriptions, like "Tensual," a combination of "tense" and "sensual" that lives up to its title, though not as much as it would have had MoM managed to get "squirrelly" in there as well. Still, two-thirds of an elusive mood-cluster is pretty damn admirable, especially for a mere seven-letter word: I'd like to meet the haiku writer who can top it.
Listening to Mouse on Mars feels like floating through cooled-down, fluorescent lava, the kind you might find in a 3-D computer-animated remake of Yellow Submarine: theirs ranks with the most ultra-psychedelic music yet. Niun Niggung and its predecessors—1994's Vulvaland, 1995's Iaora Tahiti, and 1997's Autoditacker— practically fell from the sky, wriggling uncontrollably and bursting into existence. But unlike too many of their IDM peers, MoM never set out to alienate anyone who lacks an interest in weird noises. Instead, Toma and St. Werner's aural gizmos and whirring beat-buggery convey a rare, childlike innocence and transported grace.
"Diskdusk" suggests Basement Jaxx had they wiped the hooks off their masters, leaving only fleeting noises; it's built on a submerged disco kickdrum and filled out with swishing hi-hat, deep-booming electro-tom-tom. Then it's overlaid with analog squelches, random sproings, tinkling keyboards, and surging, emotionally charged sweeps of disco strings. The results make up a giddy, idealized suggestion of what this past New Year's might have sounded like had it actually been the last night on earth. Like the rest of Niun Niggung, it gets Mouse on Mars' ideal across with an endlessly fascinating, contagious spirit.
ONE OF THE ARTISTS who's picked up on similar ideals is 24-year-old Minneapolis resident Jake Mandell, whose impressionistic sound sculptures owe plenty to Mouse on Mars' inventions. Mandell's earliest works, scattered across a series of limited-edition compilations on painfully hip micro-indie labels (Lucky Kitchen's Blip, Bleep [Soundtracks to Imaginary Videogames], Diksono's I'm So Bored with the USA), culminated in his debut, Parallel Processes, released at the beginning of 1999 on London's Worm Interface label. Parallel, like Mandell's earlier work, is both bracing and engaging: post-drum-and-bass that stutters and flops but never loses its pulse. One of Mandell's achievements is that, unlike many of his Aphex Twin/Autechre-influenced peers, his music actually has a pulse, though only a Twister adept could even try to dance to it. His beats shift constantly, and yet finding your way into them takes little effort, and his just-as-continually contorting melodies and timbres are themselves rewarding.
Mandell's winning way with a sine wave (he composes his music using sound-tools programs and a pair of computers) keep the rewards coming on two new releases that, despite the mere month separating their introduction, are dramatically different. The latter is Quondam Current, his second full-length, released by the highly respected Frankfurt label Force Inc. Quondam's pulse is further to the fore, largely due to his abandoning quasi-jungle rhythms for straighter techno beats. The results are moodier and, sadly, less playful: Mandell's once-plentiful sonic/melodic ideas are in shorter supply, and often he sounds like he's still trying to figure out how to adopt his quirks to 4/4 without falling out of rhythm. This first step into new territory is occasionally wonderful (the breakbeat breakout in the middle of "Enchanted Philter," the twisted Detroit techno-isms of "Emulsified Essature"), but far more tentative.
Far better is its predecessor, the football-shaped Placekick EP (on New York indie Carpark), which serves as a sort of coda for Parallel Processes. With only seven tracks in under 19 minutes, the EP might seem like a throwaway, but Placekick is Mandell's most stately accomplishment. If Toma and St. Werner conjure colorful 3-D fantasias, Placekick is altogether darker, though not ostentatiously so. And in fine IDM tradition, the titles tell the story—the EP's "Displacement Map," "Suspended Suspiration," "Sunday Rain," or the album's "Rubber Rock" and "Chrome Plaiting." Less onomatopoeically poetic than Mouse on Mars, to be sure, but highly appropriate nevertheless.