Earlier this year, Mouse on Mars’ Andi Toma was credited for co-writing and performing one of 2006’s most amazing electronic pop singles, Junior Boys’ “In the Morning.” Though glitch was kept to a minimum, the possibilities of the German duo’s oddball IDM and mainstream pop songwriting could actually be combined into something that resembled a hit. And with the group’s previous album, Radical Connector, even came close to doing so themselves, sharply honing in on the melodic aspect of their music and allowing their more playful aspects to overshadow the darker and more distorted ones. Toma and Jan St. Werner were clearly headed toward a path of danceability, and every star seemed to be aligned in order for them to create their most accessible release to date. With Varcharz, their first for Ipecac Records and ninth overall, that isn’t exactly the case.
Varcharz does have danceable beats, sure. And yeah, it’s even got some simpler melodies. But, as could be expected from a group that signs to a label started by Mike Patton, it’s also extremely harsh and abrasive sounding. While a track like “Duul” is fairly basic and enjoyable in its electro-industrial approach, a song like “Inocular” comes along to bring chaos to an otherwise well-operating machine, distortion clouding the entire space and mechanical beats resembling a robot invasion plodding along all the while.
What does make Varcharz somewhat more digestible to some than other Mouse on Mars releases is its repetition. The group perfected the art of the glitch on albums like Autoditacker and Niun Niggung, hardly ever allowing the same screwball sound to happen for too long, and giving their songs space and amorphousness to escape any easy bodily response. Such is not the case here. “Skik” is practically big beat; mid-tempo beats drive the beastly machine while fuzz-shrouded melodies phase in and out of a darkly clouded progression. “Bertney” is a dizzying Atari synth minefield that, while still distorted and chaotic, does resemble the Mouse of Mars of old, to some degree. “Hi Fienelin” is among the most straightforward tracks on here, a rumbling four-four, bassy throbfest that’s still noisy, yet still catchy and a whole lot of fun. Then there’s the amusingly named “Retphase,” which I first read as “ratphase”–you can practically visualize the little buggers racing through the streets among the old school Roland squelches.
Varcharz, while somewhat more conventional in terms of its nigh-industrial beats and repetitive synth sequences, is the farthest thing from a conventional Mouse on Mars album. Yet because it’s such a surprise coming from the quirky German duo, it’s actually quite a delight. It may not have the kind of groundbreaking single that Toma took part in with “In the Morning,” but it’s more than worthy of some seriously high energy dance floor activity.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.