John Maus strikes you as the kind of man who would be making music regardless of whether anyone was listening or not. And for a long time they weren’t. His first two albums, Songs and Love Is Real, went by largely unnoticed. It was only on the 2011 release of We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves that critics started to really pay attention, despite a considerable and devout cult following having formed through the years. Most people would have been eager to capitalise after this new-found attention; to milk that cow for all it’s worth. But Maus is not most people.
After touring Pitiless Censors the 37-year-old Minnesotan decided to return to academia in order to finish his Phd in Political Philosophy. His subject was “control”. Once he had achieved his doctorate he approached music with a somewhat grander goal in mind. If he was going to do make music as a profession, he needed to treat it like one. For Maus, that basically meant needing to know everything. He began building synths from scratch in his Minnesota farmhouse. Two years were spent soldering wires and rearranging circuits until he was satisfied that he had achieved the sufficient control. But while Maus was working things out the world wasn’t so patient. By the time it came to writing Screen Memories Donald Trump was being elected President and the United States was in a state of political turmoil not seen since the 70s. This mood clearly affected Maus and its transference to his music is resonant and all encompassing.
Doom and terror lurk around every corner of Screen Memories. From opening track ‘The Combine’ you know you’re in for a dark ride. Maus croons “I see the combine come, it’s gonna dust us all to nothing” while synthesizers swell and bells chime climatically. And it doesn’t get much brighter from there. ‘Edge of forever’ explores Silicon Valley’s dark obsession with immortality; ‘Bombs Away’ imagines the impending apocalypse and ‘Pets’ simply states “your pets are going to die” on repeat. Maus is clearly in no mood for sugar coating.
The sonic reference points on Screen Memories are star studded, if obvious, ranging from Talking Heads and Kraftwerk to Echo & the Bunnymen and Pet Shop Boys. That being said, it is clear that he’s not treating his music on the terms of those vague influences and is consistently doing as he always has done in striving for a sound that is distinctly his own. He sees its roots as stretching far back past the 80s into the modal music of the Renaissance and Medieval periods. This is obvious in his preference for organ and harmonisation throughout. The result is an album of ecclesiastical modes so bleak it wouldn’t even make Super Hans’ comedown playlist.
It’s not all synth-soaked doom mind you. There is a different side to Maus at play, too. This is most evident on middle tracks ‘Walls of Silence’ and ‘Decide Decide’. Here the tone is lighter, with a greater use of more “traditional” instrumentation and the bass taking over as the driver of the music. On ‘Touchdown’ and ‘The Combine’ this works. On ‘Teenage Witch’ less so.
Maus’ thirst for resonance leads Screen Memories down some bizarre, avant-garde paths, particularly as the album reaches its climax. ‘The People Are Missing’ and ‘Over Phantom’ sound more like soundtracks to a dream in which you are running around a sewer trying to kill mutant rats than anything approaching “popular” music. His control of his medium is impressive – as is the care he has invested in it – but Screen Memories lacks the sensibilities or interest in appealing to anyone beyond the hardcore fan. It will most likely remain a delight for the theorists, devotees and those with a key ear for strange synths, but casual or new listeners will find it a tough nut to crack.
While this esotericism is at the core of Screen Memories, and always has been the jewel in Maus’ crown, it does feel like from time to time it is to his detriment, particularly when he could be on the cusp of becoming more than just a cult icon. Not that it’s likely he’d care about that. Cal Byrne