Experimental, conceptual statement piece from eclectic German electronic duo
Since they formed in Berlin in 1993, Mouse on Mars have had an eye on the future. Even as new and exciting sounds developed in the music sphere around them, the electronic duo, made up of Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, has always sounded a little bit ahead of its time. But if Mouse on Mars’s music usually sounds like it’s a few decades ahead of the rest, then 2021’s AAI is a quantum leap.
St. Werner and Toma’s sound has grown increasingly playful and bright over the years, but AAI is the duo’s most science fiction-sounding project to date. Teaming with longtime drummer Dodo NKishi, writer and scholar Louis Chude-Sokei and a collective of computer programmers, Mouse on Mars’s newest work explores “the sound of an artificial intelligence growing, learning and speaking.”
Mouse on Mars’s music has been described as IDM, dub, krautrock, breakbeat and even ambient, but AAI is none of these things. Rather, it’s an experimental, conceptual statement piece that follows the sonic evolution of an AI and the implications it has on society. AAI makes use of layered polyrhythms, skittering electronics and otherworldly machinations of computerized sound, telling the glitchy, enthralling story of progress. St. Werner himself is an advocate of technology having a greater role in our lives, stating on the album’s Bandcamp page, “Machines can open up new concepts of life, and expand our definitions of being human.”
Across the record, St. Werner and Toma take listeners from the birth of a fledgling machine to a full-blown entity with humanlike intelligence, almost humanizing the robots. After a glitchy introductory track, “The Latent Space” takes people inside the motherboard of a newborn AI. In this strange digital space, people hear sounds both archaic and futuristic, as the duo take some tribal drumming and add in glitchy effects and sounds.
“Speech And Ambulation” maintains that simultaneously ancient and new sound, as a distorted narrator explains some of the history of this alternate future. Over an unsettling, alien mix, the artificially constructed voice of Chude-Sokei delivers a rambling history of humans’ relationship with machines: how we tried to limit them to computational capabilities, how they developed greater capabilities like desire and how they began to form language.
The proceeding tracks take listeners on a sonic journey of this process. Over the course of “Thousand To One,” a jumbled cacophony of mechanical sounds starts to form structured beats. On “Walking And Talking,” the beat starts to drive more, and people hear the disembodied voice of Chude-Sokei repeating “And I walk, and I walk, and I walk…”
As the central AI grows and takes shape, Mouse on Mars explore some of the philosophical questions associated with such an event. “The Fear Of Machines” questions whether history should be confined to the actions of humans, or whether humans should be a part of it at all. “Artificial Authentic” seems to blur the lines between artificial and so-called “authentic” human intelligence. And “Machine Perspective” examines how science fiction can flip the power dynamic between the human and the artificial, portraying a world in which humans follow the instructions of machines.
“Seven Months” marks the next shift. Its highly structured beat is a departure from the earlier tracks. It sounds almost as if it’s meant to be the first original music made by machines, a strange fusion of computerized sounds and jungle pop. And on “Borrow Signs,” the narration informs people that machines began to borrow signs from humans and assign them new meaning, allowing them to transform the artificial into the authentic. “New Definitions” is the sonic representation of that final stage of evolution, as the industrial sounds of hissing steam, clanging metal and creaking joints are joined by a chugging, forward-looking beat. And finally, on “New Life Always Announces Itself Through Sound,” the new race of super-intelligent machines strains and struggles to reveal itself to the world.
From both a musical and a conceptual standpoint, Mouse on Mars keeps things interesting and thought-provoking. Alongside the compelling sonic journey from freeform electronic sounds to fully formed computerized beats is a philosophical journey into transhumanism. While listeners might not agree with St. Werner’s ideas, he certainly gives them plenty to think about on AII.