Graded on a Curve:
Jan St. Werner, Felder

German- based musician-composer Jan St. Werner has been an important member of the international electronic scene for over two decades, both as a solo artist and as half of the pioneering duo Mouse on Mars. Displaying no signs of creative stasis, St. Werner is releasing his fourth full-length for Thrill Jockey; brandishing a disciplined approach to forging fresh sonic paths, Felder transcends genre, and it’s available on CD, LP, and digital April 1.

Emerging as part of the fruitful ’90s electronic milieu, Mouse on Mars is unquestionably Jan St. Werner’s highest profile musical endeavor; he and partner Andi Toma brought the New in no uncertain terms, debuting in ’94 with Vulvaland on the Too Pure label. Newness is in some cases tantamount to the ephemeral, but Mouse on Mars has hung in there, issuing ten albums amidst a substantial number of shorter works and collaborations (2014’s extensive 21 Again is a swell exposé of connections), and their discography stands amongst the least dated in the ‘90s electronic wave.

St. Werner’s been busy on his own; Felder is the fourth installment in his Fiepblatter Catalogue, a parenthetical attached to the entirety of his Thrill Jockey output. The series’ modus operandi, to quote the label’s promo text for inaugural 2013 entry Blaze Colour Burn, is to “encompass electro-acoustic experimentation, algorithmic elements, scored music, digital signal processing, field recordings, improvisation, public performance, and graphic works. These pieces aren’t just about sound; they’re about location, structure, time, aesthetics. Stories that overlap and interact with each other.”

In short; hell, yeah! Blaze Colour Burn delivered a major slice of well-considered abstraction, and the Fiepblatter Catalogue continued the same year with Transcendental Animal Numbers. Fittingly, it was Thrill Jockey’s first cassette only affair as it dropped two 20 minute tracks onto opposite sides of a tape with packaging recalling the heyday of the format as a vessel of uncompromising invention; just as appropriately, it was issued in a micro edition of 150 copies.

Although Mouse on Mars has grown more cerebral over time, even on later releases such as 2012’s “WOW” mini-LP, the relationship to electronica is palpable. If Transcendental Animal Numbers registered like something mail ordered from the back of a mimeographed fanzine circa the mid-’80s, as emphasized by last year’s Miscontinuum Album, St. Werner’s Fiepblatter Catalogue is a far more explicitly avant-garde scenario on the whole, and Felder extends the situation while standing as a distinct volume in the series.

The most obvious difference is Miscontinuum Album’s accomplices, a handful including Dylan Carlson of Earth and Markus Popp of Oval, the latter notably St. Werner’s associate in the duo Microstoria. The synopsis of Felder’s creation offers no collaborators, and while additional hands still might’ve been involved, the ten selections cohere into an ambiance considerably solo in nature.

Opener “Beardman” presents an extended minimalist soundscape effectively blurring the division between organic and electronic, though the derivation of specific resonances isn’t a total mystery; hazy keyboard tones lend form to the piece’s initial moments as whooshes and splashes of analog synth add color to the duration. The track’s eight minutes unfurl in sections suggesting sound-collage but lacking splices or hard edits; instead, St. Werner cultivates a flowing atmosphere as inviting as it is structurally fluid.

Perhaps a better descriptor is intriguing. The word surely applies to “Kroque AF,” a lengthier contribution exuding a quite cinematic and specifically science-fictive impression at the start; as the sounds progress a variety of textures and templates arise, but a mysterious and at times ominous quality is maintained throughout.

In the cut’s midsection, nearly submerged in the radio waves and rubbery timbres of synth, is a sound that may or may not be a woman’s voice; this seemingly minor aspect is a fine example of Felder’s overall appeal. Folks whose prior experience is almost entirely devoted to song-based forms could easily feel at sea with the supposed randomness of it all, but the movement of “Osho” underlines St. Werner’s attention to detail, combining baroque-tinged electronics with digital stutter as the sound field (the album’s title translates to ‘field’ in German) leads to a practically modernist classical finish.

“Foggy Esor Pt. 1” is a shorter passage wielding diced-up hints of song form aided by snippets of what’s definitely a female voice, with momentary dropouts and frequent redirections undercutting any encroaching normalcy. It’s a nice prelude to “The Somewhere That Is Moving,” a significantly broader track mingling well-established, somewhat grounding elements, e.g. the opening piano notes, with facets identifiable as belonging to the fringe.

Namely, the aforementioned digital stuttering returns in a more overt context; analogous to a CD skipping in place, many will decry the sound as unmusical, though it bears noting that St. Werner’s not the first to employ the tactic. Here, he adapts it in a manner in accord with minimalist/drone techniques, and as the piece unwinds multiple motifs advance and recede and interweave to complete a striking work.

At least a percentage (and possibly all) of Felder’s piano phrases are taken from a private Popul Vuh compilation, the instrument making “Slipped through Heaven” as meditative as it is eclectic. The award for the most apt title goes to “The Abstract Pit,” its wide spectrum evoking the early days of electronic composition but with some nasty reverberations decreasing the visions of skinny tall bespectacled dudes in lab coats.

“Foggy Esor Pt. 2” reengages with the manipulated songic air of its first part, and “Singoth” spills forth with rigid undulation giving way to an enveloping mass of aural threads including lines from a French horn and mechanical tones implying Industrial field recordings. The horn lingers as the brief finale “Rain Deer” sounds like at was presided over by Clara Rockmore, Louis and Bebe Barron, and a pack of razor blades.

The above should make plain that Felder is tailor-made for fans of the musical outskirts, but in no way is it the gesture of a dilettante; to the contrary, St. Werner’s latest is deeply connected to experimental tradition as it adds another worthy chapter to the increasingly impressive Fiepblatter Catalogue.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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