A kaleidoscopic stew of wacky sounds and spoken word vocals
Spoken word music has long been a cultural mainstay in the United States, dating back to the time of prolific poets like Robert Frost and Harlem Renaissance staples like Langston Hughes. These compositions are often bare, save for the spoken vocals and some light percussive accompaniments. But Jan St. Werner doesn’t play by the rules.
As half of the groundbreaking electronic duo Mouse on Mars, formed in 1993, St. Werner has always had an affinity for the experimental. On 2020’s Molocular Meditation, he pairs his off-kilter electroacoustic leanings with Mark E. Smith’s (the Fall) gritty, nasally vocals, forming a composition that pushes the limits of spoken word music.
Originally unveiled as a live multi-channel installation in 2014, Molocular Meditation was re-edited, remastered and re-released by St. Werner this year. The stereo version of the project sounds like a psychedelic fury of chaotic programming and unhinged disdain. It’s wonky, it’s abrasive and it’s almost certain to divide listeners. Some may find Smith’s cryptic lyrics and St. Werner’s wacky instrumentation to be nonsensical, while others might resonate with the idiosyncrasy. Either way, Molocular Meditation doesn’t have a dull moment.
That’s even true for the 20-minute eponymous opener “Molocular Meditation.” Smith’s nasally, emphatic speaking is joined by St. Werner’s asynchronous beeps, droning buzzing and musical and ambient interjections. A pissed-off Smith begins with a series of observations on seemingly mundane objects and events, speaking with a palpable disdain and grit. His performance is wildly entertaining as he grumbles and ruminates about the meaninglessness of life and “his discontent with an apolitical british upper class,” per the album’s Bandcamp page.
Throughout the lengthy track, St. Werner melds his production with Smith’s voice, warping and weaving his vocals into the instrumentation. Sometimes, Smith’s voice will trail off into sonic oblivion, being swallowed up by a flurry of wonky synths and beeps. Other times, his vocals take precedence but are distorted into eruptions of white noise and ambience. From start to finish, St. Werner creates an unsettling mood on the track, mirroring Smith’s disjointed, impassioned tirade.
Second track “Back To Animals” is less expansive, clocking in at around four minutes, but St. Werner and Smith still manage to pack in plenty of intrigue. Surreal and chaotic, the track’s instrumental is mainly composed of a deep, grainy bass and skittering percussion from a drum machine. The percussion is seemingly random, forming a rumbling, jumbling mess of kicks and scratches. But where “Molocular Meditation” has flow and evolution beneath the chaos, “Back to Animals” does not–it just sounds like a collection of random, unrelated sounds. The vocal performance on the track is also disappointing, as Smith’s iconic voice is obscured beneath layers of synthetic haze and audio effects. It’s nearly impossible to decipher his words, which takes away from the poetic effect of spoken word.
“On The Infinite Of Universe And Worlds” doesn’t have vocals at all. St. Werner describes it as “an electronic opera based on Giordano Bruno’s Renaissance writings,” taking the Italian philosopher’s cosmological texts and transforming them into an eclectic journey through his DAW. The song feels sentient, as if the music does whatever it pleases. It opens with a flurry of industrial percussion, sounding like a factory machine firing on all cylinders. The percussion chugs on, becoming increasingly distorted before being replaced with laser-like and video game synths. Ambient rumbling fills the background, as if the track is being recorded in a car on the highway with its windows down. For the remainder of the tune, St. Werner interpolates different sounds into the mix at will, sometimes isolating one or two instruments and other times simply throwing them all together in an abrasive stew.
The track’s outro is supremely eerie, as grainy, wispy synths play somber chords and a strange huffing sound forms a beat, but the rest of the song leaves much to be desired. It’s unclear what St. Werner’s going for here, as the “opera” is more of a disjointed symphony of computerized beeps and odd noises.
On closer “VS Cancelled,” Smith is reprised as he recites an email from Domino Records in regards to the label’s discontinuation of he and St. Werner’s Von Sudenfed project. Strange rumbling and sporadic percussion hits form the track’s base while Smith reads the rejection email in a sarcastically condescending tone that’ll evoke a chuckle or two. “I think that’s the lot Jan, thanks,” are the record’s final spoken words, as Smith comically and nonchalantly signs off.
Molecular Meditation is weird, experimental and often unsettling. While Smith deserves plaudits for his sheer iconicism–his presence on the record imbues it with personality–St. Werner’s risky compositions are often frustrating and incoherent. While there are some interesting sounds and combinations across the project, St. Werner’s spin on spoken word comes across as irritatingly messy at times.