Review: Mouse on Mars with musikFabrik at the Barbican
Published on November 29th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
As our recent interview with Jan St. Werner testified, these are exciting times to be a Mouse on Mars fan: a brand new studio album, Parastrophics, is penned in for a 24th February release, but first up for an excited Rocksucker was the German duo’s Paeanumnion show with André de Ridder’s musikFabrik orchestra in the plush environs of London’s Barbican on Friday night.
The evening’s entertainment got underway in near darkness, with eerie blasts of children’s song and electronic squiggles emanating from alternating points around the large hall, to the point that the audience’s collective gaze was following these sounds around despite there being nothing much out of the ordinary to actually witness.
This piece was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths), a pioneering 1956 piece to be played on tape rather than by live musicians, described as “the first masterpiece of electronic music”.
Rocksucker may have had to stem a slight giggling fit brought on by the rows of serious faces taking in this borderline frightening surrealism for fifteen minutes or so, but the manner in which the grand concert room was manipulated as an instrument in itself was awe-inspiring.
First up of the evening’s tangible live performers was Oval, aka Markus Popp, formerly one half of Microstoria alongside St. Werner. His jittery, pummelling, stained-glass-window-shards of electronic squalls may have threatened to explode speakers and heads alike but were compelling, even when presented as they were with the hardly enthralling visual stimulus of one bloke hunched over a laptop.
Popp’s affable onstage persona saved the day in this respect, his evident revelry in this one-man sensory assault raising smiles and conjuring a marvellous image in Rocksucker’s mind of an unimpressed looking Noel Gallagher sitting front row centre, arms folded, uncomprehending and muttering something about picking up a guitar. A delightfully perverse and perversely delightful set from yer man Popp.
After a brief interval, St. Werner and Andi Toma took to an elevated, mist-stirringly spotlit raised platform at the back of the stage, where they spent the performance behind a large mixing desk undertaking all manner of weird and wonderful functions (including, at one point, a guitar played by Toma) while De Ridder expertly navigated his faultless orchestra through the otherworldly mini-masterpiece that is their Paeanumnion collaboration.
By turns soothing and climactic, melodic and jarring, this three-part piece couldn’t help but bring to mind an electronic reimagining of Brian Wilson’s SMiLE, itself a not-so-obvious reference point in the Mouse on Mars oeuvre. Heck, a period of bows slashing the backs of violins even recalled SMiLE‘s (in)famous ‘workshop’ section.
This welding together of the electronic and orchestral was as subtly eccentric as this combination would suggest, with a large coral shell used as a trumpet, all manner of percussive instruments strung up like marionettes around the stage, and even a round of en masse, rhythmic finger-clicking into microphones, just one discernible microcosm of the larger grapple between the organic and the technological on display. Single-note refrains underpinned complex string arrangements, vocal lines of St. Werner’s were rendered indecipherable by a flashing mini-UFO mouthpiece, and nothing was quite as it seemed.
Actually, that’s a lie: everything was more or less exactly as it seemed, given that it was all being carried out before your very eyes. And that in itself was a revelation, a musical acknowledgement of the form’s boundless possibilities, a succinct representation of infinity. St. Werner confirmed in our interview with him that Paeanumnion will be committed to record once they’ve completed work on Parastrophics, seemingly an immense undertaking itself, so if you missed this concert then don’t fret.
In fact, an aural-only consumption of this project should prove mind-expanding by sheer virtue of mystery. “Ultimately, I think we met the orchestra in an abstract world somewhere in between the obvious and the fantastic,” said St. Werner in the free programme-pamphlet left lovingly on each seat. He made no mention the obviously fantastic, but we will: Paeanumnion was obviously fantastic.
Parastrophics, the new album from Mouse on Mars, will be released 24th February on Monkeytown Records.