Mouse on Mars – AAI (2021)

Over the last 25 years, the duo of Andi Toma and Jan St Werner – known together as Mouse on Mars – have carved out a niche at the cutting edge of electronic music that is completely their own. In all that time, they’ve never stood still. Instead, the pair have constantly evolved and experimented, retaining a signature sound and aesthetic instantly recognisable as their own. One of the keys to the band’s longevity and popularity, especially outside of electronic music, has been their innate musicality and eagerness to collaborate with a wide range of artists. And the key to enjoying, or at least understanding, Mouse on Mars’ latest full length is an appreciation of the role played by Artificial Intelligence, both in the album’s production and as its inspiration. For AAI stands for Anarchic Artificial Intelligence, and the record can be seen as both a demonstration of the power of AI as well as a treatise in defence of its role as a creative force.

For this project, the pair employed a bespoke piece of software designed to model human speech. As its input, the AI was fed recordings of an actual human voice, which Toma and St Werner were able to manipulate by tweaking various parameters, giving them a kind of voice-synthesiser. This machine mouthpiece can be heard throughout AAI, both as an instrument of pure sound, as well as delivering what can best be described as a series of mini lectures on the nature of knowledge, thought and desire, along with humanity’s ever-changing relationship with technology.

After a 30-second intro introducing us to our robot narrator, the album kicks off proper with Latent Space. The title being a reference to the conceptual space within which an AI maps the myriad connections between a galaxy of data points. Featuring the live drumming of long-time MoM percussionist, Dodo NKishi, it’s a hectic, restless track that refuses to settle into a groove. Perhaps mirroring the spontaneous sparks of connection that occur in the latent space, curious rhythmic detours open here and there, only to fizzle out just as fast, while strange scraping and fizzing noises percolate through the mix, along with at one point what sounds like a child’s recorder. It’s a promising start and probably the most classic ‘Mouse on Mars sounding’ track here, exemplifying the band’s riotous ‘chuck everything and the kitchen sink’ into the mix approach.

Unfortunately, after this the pace falters somewhat and the following four tracks, although boldly experimental and at times interesting and even confounding, seem to lack that crucial feature of being enjoyable to listen to. Speech and Ambulation sounds like a computer that’s gone into meltdown and started spewing out its own lines of code – rubbery percussion sets a jittery arrhythmic tempo, haunted by wordless screeches and moans of machine voice. Thousand to One is similarly unsettling; the manipulated speech slurs and drawls incomprehensibly over drones and squalls of machine-buzz, while in the background metallic clunks and rattles sound for all the world like a hard drive being dismantled chip by chip.

One of the greatest concerns for the detractors of AI is its tendency, when pursuing a goal, to perform actions that are utterly inscrutable to human observers. Once an objective has been programmed and all the relevant data has been input, an AI will do whatever it ‘thinks’ best to achieve the desired outcome – no matter how counter intuitive it may seem to us. Listening to AAI, one is frequently confronted with this unfathomableness – the sense that there is some non-human intelligence at the controls, drawing connections and patterns beyond the ken of any human listener. Maybe it makes sense to the machines, but a good portion of AAI feels impenetrable to me.

As well as Artificial Intelligence of course, the third component of AAI is anarchy, which has long been an integral ingredient in MoM’s music, with its free-wheeling, improvisational, anything-can-happen kind of feel. This album appears to be an exercise in showing that anarchism and unpredictability are not purely human traits, and that computers have a wild side too. This is attempted both through the music itself and the selection of synthesised monologues that emerge as brief interludes of articulacy from the surrounding chaos.

The result is not a resounding success. AAI poses some urgent and relevant questions about technology and the increasingly blurred distinction between the ‘artificial’ and ‘authentic’, but I feel the music would have been better left to speak for itself. In themselves, the lectures are fascinating, and the fact they’re delivered by an uncannily realistic synthetic voice is impressive, but they don’t especially add to the music. As a result, AAI lacks flow. After the early lag, the album’s mid-section boasts a decent run of tracks but things drop off again towards the end, and of the final seven tracks, six are short excursions that don’t lead anywhere in particular.

This is made more frustrating by the fact the album’s highlights are as strong as anything else in the band’s back catalogue. The frenetic Youmachine reverberates with a dancehall-style rudeness; the computer voice acting as hype man, layering cut-up syllables like an MC spitting zingers. Artificial Authentic explodes with bright electro synths that ricochet over a staccato rhythm, the computer voice this time adding a chorus of chipmunk-like chirps. It feels like an eruption of playfulness and inventiveness that briefly reminds you how much fun listening to a Mouse on Mars album usually is.

From the breakbeats of jungle on their earliest releases in the mid 90s, to footwork and juke on 2012’s WOW, Mouse on Mars have always incorporated contemporary genres into their own unique melting pot of experimentalism. For AAI, I wonder if they’ve taken some inspiration from the ‘algo-rave’ scene, where producers (or rather programmers), perform by ‘live coding’ their beats for crowds of ravers. The result is something that, while ‘inhuman’ and artificial, is thoroughly unpredictable, improvisational and anarchic. By removing the traditional interface of music production software (never mind hardware) and taking us closer to the algorithms, these artists challenge our notions of what constitutes creativity, as well as push the limits of what it’s possible to dance to.

Whatever the inspiration, AAI should be commended as the latest step on a bold journey of exploration. Given Mouse on Mars’ exalted position in electronic music, it would be easy for them to take the easy route from here on in. A quick look at the envious list of guest collaborators on their recent ‘birthday compilation’, 21 Again, gives an idea of how in demand they must be. And no doubt they could have a queue of mainstream pop artists looking to burnish their leftfield credentials, by forking out for a Mouse on Mars remix. But rather than get comfortable, Toma and St Werner have continued to innovate. So despite its patchy nature, AAI is worth listening to, and the questions it poses will need answering sooner rather than later, or the machines will answer them for us.

This review originally appears in Still Listening Magazine.

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