By Amos Tang
Finally We Are No One
The term Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) is as banal as it is a misnomer. Supposedly indicative of the nature and function of the music, much of the music in this genre is impossible to dance to, even more so than Drum and Bass. Listening to albums like Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II or this new one in my CD player, it is hard to imagine why critics like to use the term ‘Dance Music’ to describe such music. If Suede hadn’t labeled their last album ‘Head Music,’ it would have been a much more appropriate term to use. So instead of filing Múm’s Finally We Are No One under IDM, I would rather enjoy it as it is and reject the conveniences of any sort of categorisation.
Múm is probably the leader of a new generation of sound collagists who are influenced more by computer games than serious musicians such as Ryuichi Sakamoto or Lou Reed. With their computer-aided approach instead of the traditional analogue method, they are able to expand the possibilities of sound to infinity. What makes them even more interesting is the fact that they are amongst the youngest in the scene. Formed in 1997 when they were just 15, the combination of the four members may sound unlikely due to the disparity of their tastes in music. The two girls in the group are classically-trained. As for the two guys, one was in a guitar-based band prior to the birth of Múm and the other wanted to write a computer game. The outcome of such differences may have caused a disaster but miraculously, their brand of electronica was startlingly refreshing.
After receiving much critical acclaim outside Iceland for their first album Yesterday was Dramatic, Today is OK, which offered something that sounds like it comes from Aphex Twin’s Rephlex label, this sophomore release has a more organic and watery feel to it, as well as darker in many ways. Talking about watery, a strange thing you may notice about this album is that the titles of three out of the eleven tracks have something to do with swimming pools. However peculiar, here is a superior collection of candies for ears brought up on contemporary electronica. The aesthetic appeal of it may be grand, but it is likely to sound pretty dated in two years’ time. But the same can also be said about tomorrow’s new forms of futurism or avant-gardism.
While their taste is not as eclectic as Jimi Tenor and they might not have as expansive a record collection as masters of sampledelica of the last generation, such as Amon Tobin or DJ Shadow, Múm makes use of software and manages to effortlessly create their own universe of sound. In terms of creative energy, these youngsters are up there with u-ziq at his peak. While the soundscape is reminiscent of Boards of Canada at times, this album contains five BOC albums’ worth of ideas. My speculation on why Boards of Canada’s international debut album Music has The Right to Children eventually became such a cult favorite is that it is solely due to the critical acclaim it received and the prestigious Warp label they are under. It is the kind of record smart people buy to impress their not-as-smart friends. In the mean time, unlike Sigur Ros, who named their last album New Beginning and claimed it would change the music scene forever, Múm has very different ideologies. The only thing Múm concerns itself with is to create enjoyable electronic music. The final product is a collection of gems.
Names of possible influences just pop into your head while listening to this record, yet Múm may also sound like no one else in particular. It has the playfulness of Mouse On Mars, the video game music quality of Plone, the cutesy imageries of Gentle People, the sinister vision of Boards of Canada, the atmospheric elements of compatriots Sigur Ros and the disoriented and oblique beats of Matmos. Nope, it sounds more like a soundtrack to a Nintendo game made in 2010 about a black cat’s misfortune in a children’s playground.
Like many great albums before this, the tracks on this album can be neatly divided into two halves. If the opening cut provides the transport for you to enter the wonderful universe named Múm, then the second track, ‘Green Grass of Tunnel’ sets you going on a roller coaster ride. The distinctive polyrhythmic beats and the transcendental instrumentation aside, the vocal is really the centerpiece on this track. You would end up asking yourself, ‘When was the last time you heard such vocals?” Totally unaffected, the sheer sense of innocence in the singing will leave you wondering what a terrible mark maturity may have left on your soul. The eloquent third track ‘We Have a Map of the Piano’ sounds like streams of water, and the vocals are struggling to keep afloat. The next track ‘Don’t Be Afraid, You Have Just Gotten Your Eyes Closed’ is downright fun; reminiscent of the ambience of Mouse On Mars, yet one can tell from the instrumentation that this is Múm in its strictest element. The fifth track brings a close to the first half of the album that is slightly more cheerful than the six tracks that follow.
‘K/Half Noise’ opens the second half of the album with the otherworldly soundscape of Sigur Ros, the vocal employed here sounds like it is underwater. The way the vocal harmonisation is done on ‘Now There’s That Fear Again’ is worth noting, influenced by Björk no less, but not as over-the-top; beautiful yet ominous, but not dark and frightening enough for you to press the ‘Escape’ key. And so is the rest of the second half of the album; sonically more ethereal and dreamy than the first half, and way more emotive. The strength of this half of the album is neatly summed up by the last track, ‘The Land Between Solar Systems.’ Starting off with hypnotic, Sigur Ros-type atmospherics, it soon develops into a lullaby trip-hoppers like Mono or Mandalay could only dream of producing. As the song fades, you will find yourself under a melancholic spell. Technology is rapidly changing the ways people make, obtain, and perceive music. Aesthetics naturally follow suit. Computer software is being written to make lo-fi bedroom electronica possible. The consequence of this is that it makes the latest Plastikman album sound like an item from an antique CD shop. Music that was extolled yesterday may be outdated today. Both musicians and their fans are often left disconcerted. Even if one makes an effort to update his or her knowledge of the latest movements and happenings in the electronic music scene, one may end up frustrated and confused. Names such as Sutekh, Robert Hood, Basic Channel, Frank Bretschneider, Mille Plateaux, Daedelus, Kid 606, Thomas Brinkmann, Johan Hedin, Scanner, Single Cell Orchestra and Dntel just keep coming up and it is almost impossible to keep up! Yesterday, critics announced that Glitch was the next big thing and it has sunken into oblivion. My bet is that it really does not matter where Múm will stand this time next year. For now at least, their music is all that matters.
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002