Rating:When the technological singularity takes place and artificial intelligence overtakes the human brain, we all might be hearing a lot more intelligent dance music (IDM). This relatively obscure electronica subgenre demands a lot of cerebral participation from the listener in order for its fractured patterns to be assembled and take the shape of something approaching a melody. For now, though, technology has yet to gain sentience or merge with organic minds, so acts like Aphex Twin, Autechre and Squarepusher remain an acquired taste, but IDM’s narrow appeal has established itself to the point of maintaining a consistent and loyal following over the past two decades.
Right there in the midst of it all has been Mouse on Mars, the German duo of lifelong friends Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma (their bond is so great that they were even reportedly born on the same day in the same hospital). While MoM may not be the first name that comes to mind in relation to IDM, their stellar early 2012 LP Parastrophics (their first in six years) reestablished the duo as one of the best. Unfortunately, the critical success of that album has not carried over into their second release of the year, WOW. This 33-minute “mini-album” was billed by the group as a focus on more club-oriented tracks, but instead it comes off as a hurried effort (it was, in fact, recorded in only a few short weeks) more in line with the spray of sparks and chatter of binary code processing in a robotics factory than the sweat and pulse of the dance floor.
After the success of Parastrophics, the band’s first album released on Modeselektor’s Monkeytown label, Mouse on Mars is again getting by with a little help from their friends as the Argentinean punk band Las Kellies had a hand in this mini-album and, most notably, Vietnamese performer and sculptor Dao Anh Khanh (whom the duo happened to meet while touring Asia) takes on vocal duties. Khanh’s Yoko Ono-like yelping serves as an intro and his guttural chants are peppered throughout the record. But as the band moves into the meat of their album with their first actual song (“DOG”), the initially bloopy bounce that seems to serve as the foundation for the promised club-orientation stalls into a series of groaning engine noises, some aborted power-ups and a skittering drum machine that’s as pesky to the ears as a the whine of a nearby mosquito.
In fact, it’s not until past the midway point with “ACD” (each track on the mini-album is either a three letter word or acronym) that we encounter anything remotely danceable. A raindrop whoop keeps the beat as the e-drums titter and the duo play around with effects that call to mind fractals. The track is repetitive, sure, but it’s also one of the few songs that builds toward something and adds additional layers as it progresses rather than taking every possible chance to burrow inaccessibly deep into experimental strata. “CAN” is also less obscure than other tracks, with electronic shattering effects and more organic percussion that pull together with warped vocals into a ramshackle, yet fully operational, beat.
Unfortunately, those tracks are the exception. More often, the songs go the way of “APE,” which starts auspiciously enough, as Khanh’s trippy manipulated vocals recall the backwards-talking dwarf from “Twin Peaks.” The early portion of the song takes on a demented circus feel and eventually morphs into the equivalent of industrial machinery interspersed with molten pits from a sci-fi climax, but before it has a chance to do much, the track slows and meanders and eventually drops off the catwalk and fizzles away. Meanwhile, “PUN” is all over the map with keys and varying frequencies of synthesized effects; at times it begins to come together like a swarm of fireflies briefly configuring into a discernible shape, but then splits apart again into chaos before fully resonating.
Too often, Mouse on Mars is content to grind the gears and call it music rather than use experimental elements for any other purpose than to make weird noises. Despite some sleek production at times, this album feels rushed and supplemental, as though it should have been included in the bonus materials of a box set. Whatever possessed the band to release a second record within the same calendar year after lying nearly dormant for the previous six is anyone’s guess. Should the robot uprising befall the planet anytime soon, maybe our new digital overlords will find use for WOW, but until then I’m sticking with Parastrophics (or the even more accessible electro-pop of 2006’s Radical Connector) – intelligent dance music that doesn’t leave me scratching my head.