Immediate hooks and hummable melodies are not the major stock in trade here – but of course that is no bad thing used in the right manner. Let’s put it this way: Mahler’s Second Symphony is a towering piece of musical brilliance, but you’d be hard pressed to whistle it.
One thing which I’ve learned from following the last few releases by German outfit Electric Mud is: expect the unexpected. I first came across them from their early releases, such as Lunatic Asylum and Wrong Planet, when they were a hard to categorise mixture of prog, post-rock and stoner heaviness. I realise of course that ironically I have just categorised them, but they were so unlike almost anything else I’d heard that the next man could refer to them in entirely different terms. When their album The Deconstruction Of Light came along, it was a big breakthrough. Everything they had been reaching towards coalesced into an angry, angular, heavy, combative and intense whole which… well, let’s just invoke the ‘hard to categorise’ phrase again! Essentially a duo of Hagen Bretschneider (‘bass and music conception’) and multi-instrumentalist Nico Walser (all other instruments), they were a little like a rebellious Tangerine Dream who had raided the musical instrument box and run riot with everything they could get their hands on – guitar, bass, keyboards and assorted percussion all combined to make this glorious noise. Then they followed it up with Quiet Days On Earth, and all bets were off again.
Everything which The Deconstruction Of Light had been, Quiet Days On Earth was almost the same but in negative format. This time, gone was the chaos, and calm reflection ruled the day. Tracks built and unfolded slowly in an almost ambient way, though still capable of springing a heavy instrumental surprise just when you thought you were relaxing into it. The two albums together formed a magnificent bookended pair of contrasting moods, and still do. Which begged the question when this new release was announced: where are they going to go next? And I was, of course, wrong. Because on this occasion, the core duo of Hagen and Nico have thrown the structure of their previous musical partnership into the air and reinvented themselves quite dramatically, as the duo have become five. Multi-instrumentalists (though mainly keyboardists) Timo ‘Timoog’ Aspelmeier and David Marlow have not only been brought in, but have composed roughly 75% of the music between them as well as contributing percussion, organ synthesisers, piano and orchestral programming. Also new in is Judith Retzik, on strings (violin, viola and cello), while Nico provides the rest of the instrumentation – Hagen on this occasion not credited with his usual bass and mainly being on the musical conception and visual design side (plus video editing). It’s a big shift in emphasis and personnel, so clearly we should be ready for another seismic shift in the Mud sound. Wrong again, as this album is for the most part a continuation and focusing of the direction explored with the previous album.
As on that record, the mood of the music and the way the whole soundscape fits together and builds is very much the overriding element here. This is an album which is heavy on keyboards and electronics, though conversely the old-school string sounds of Judith Retzik make a lovely addition. The tone is set immediately by the beautifully evocative opener Exploring The Great Wide Nothing and its equally expressive and impressive follow-up The Fear Within. The feelings and emotions conjured up by the musical palette are the main thing being explored here, and it is easy to get lost in the unfolding of sound around you. Straight away it has to be made clear that immediate hooks and hummable melodies are not the major stock in trade here – but of course that is no bad thing used in the right manner. Let’s put it this way: Mahler’s Second Symphony is a towering piece of musical brilliance, but you’d be hard pressed to whistle it. Or, to use a slightly closer comparison in the instrumental work of Mike Oldfield, while Tubular Bells and Ommadawn may have recognisable and memorable sections, Hergest Ridge and Incantations much less so – but that does not lessen their quality or the pleasure gained from them one iota. Electric Mud, at least at this stage of their career, are not about ‘the hits’.
The album is no nebulous ambient piece, however, relaxing the listener like some new-age musical bubble-bath. Rather, it is clear from some of the titles of the pieces here that far different emotions are being invoked: as well as The Fear Within, Those Who Leave The World Behind and Descent Into The Forsaken Valley are clearly giving you some much bleaker and/or darker mental imagery to play with. Sérotonine is a real standout, invoking the brain chemical serotonin itself by developing from an uneasy, troubled beginning only to flood itself with a tentatively joyous release. This is musical tone-poem composition of the highest order. Elsewhere, the mysteriously titled Guardians Of The Weather Machine leaves your mind to go wherever it will – perhaps to a sort of sci-fi variant on Kate Bush’s classic Cloudbusting. For my part, I could not help mentally constructing a sort of imaginary Star Trek script, with the shadowy Guardians using the Weather Machine to keep a dying world stable for as long as possible. You pay your money and your imagination takes its choice, and I love that. Silent Stranger Suite is the longest piece, a slow, devious beast, teasing out its secrets gradually and tentatively and rewarding the listener’s patience.
Probably the single standout piece to these ears is Around The Mind In 80 Lies, which begins in the same atmospheric way as much of the rest of the material, before the last few minutes burst into a glorious guitar-driven coda, Nico Walser’s soloing setting the whole piece into grand relief and providing a greatly satisfying and impressive contrast. In fact, if there is a criticism of the album as a whole, it is that this sonic contrast – and indeed that soaring guitar – would have benefitted from being used a little more. A touch more grist to the musical mill, and a little more of a study in contrasts, to take the listener’s breath away when deployed.
That said, this is still a hugely well-produced and assembled piece of work, with hardly a note misplaced in its meticulous quest to unlock your emotions and soundtrack your imagination. If the next one continues along these lines, and perhaps sees a really extended piece pulling out all of the instrumentally contrasting stops, Electric Mud could be heading towards their Magnum Opus. I’ll be there to check it out for size, that’s for sure.