Release Date: Oct 27, 2017
Record label: Ribbon Music
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
John Maus is a master of his domain. His macabre mood pieces are sketched out with a consistent set of tools: sullen incantations, crystalline synths, carnivalesque organs, distant wailing guitars, commanding basslines and huge volumes of reverb and echo. It adds up to a heady hit of '80s synth pop, with tasting notes of Hammer horror films and Castlevania games.
Far from seeking out ways to reinvent himself, Minnesota's inscrutable synth-pop intellectual seems to have spent the years since 2011's We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves finding ways to crystallise his peculiar pitch. Aside from completing a political philosophy doctorate on communication and control, the former Ariel Pink collaborator constructed his own modular synthesizer, dogged in his pursuit of singular self-sufficiency. The result is a fourth album that conveys Maus' confounding persona with total confidence: sometimes silly, sometimes stentorian, it gives the impression of a man in full command of his off-piste forays, rendering it fascinating even as it befuddles.
He's on another level when it comes to exploring the meanings, sounds and emotions conveyed in pop music. This was proven on the 2011 album, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves; a masterful piece of work which brought together both contemporary and archaic influences. Maus soon vanished after the record to pursue his academic goals and casually completed a doctorate in political philosophy.
It has been six years since John Maus released new material, but the synth-pop retrofuturist and punk intellectual hasn't just been twiddling his thumbs at home in the open plains of rural Minnesota. Deciding that he should take his responsibilities as a professional musician seriously, Maus spent two years building his own modular synthesizer, inspired by pioneers like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Never one to take an easy route, Maus was convinced that the effort of creating electronic music from scratch could only lend his work a greater significance.
Throughout six long years John Maus remained idle from music by occupying himself with his PhD in political science. Upon its completion, he actively engaged in building of his own modular synthesizer. With 2011's We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves, a remarkable pillar of his career and beyond, he consistently improved his status, got a core group of followers and also was lyrically incisive on top of his faded 80s-inflected lo-fi synth pop we learned and grew to love.
Where has John Maus been hiding for the majority of this decade? Having been absent from making any music for over six years, the synth-pop virtuoso spent that time on the outskirts of rural Minnesota building a modular synthesizer from scratch. Though Maus has gone to undermine that taxing exercise, that's not to say that his latest, Screen Memories, benefits from the trial and error that is central to his experimental ethic. Screen Memories carries a sinister tone from the start with The Combine, given how Maus's brooding vocal presence casts a dour warning.
The world is on repeat. Yesterday's trends will be fashionable tomorrow, and today's trends were fashionable 20 years ago. Minnesotan weirdo John Maus has never seemed to care about things as trivial as being fashionable, or chasing the zeitgeist. In fact, over his 11 year career he has made a name for himself doing quite the opposite.
Arriving six years after his previous studio album, Screen Memories rejoins Minnesota musician John Maus after he finished his doctorate in political philosophy and set about building his own custom set of modular synthesizers to record it. As evoked by cover art that shows a sparsely furnished room with a snowy cathode-ray tube TV, Maus returns to a cinematic, turn-of-the-'80s-inspired synth pop, if a slightly more coherent one with his new setup. Still suggesting an underground music of the Max Headroom universe, his sometimes indiscernible, Ian Curtis-like delivery and a tendency to repeat only a few lines again and again within a song continue to put the spotlight on mood and texture over melody or message.
If the test of time is the only true measure of an album's worth then John Maus's We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is close to being a classic. In the six years that have passed since it was met with unanimous acclaim, the record's synthesized enclaves feel as alive and energized as they did in 2011. Of course, this puts the Minnesota-based musician's fourth LP Screen Memories in a slightly awkward spot.
A pparently John Maus has spent some of the six years since his last album finishing his doctorate in political philosophy. Perhaps he should have taken a degree in common sense, given his worrying assignations with the "alt-right", and daft assertions such as "the notion of the homosexual is really an invention of the 19th and 20th centuries". Luckily, Screen Memories isn't particularly political, and all the better for its lack of lyrical ambition.
Six years on from being catapulted out of underground obscurity with 'We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves', John Maus has returned with his long-awaited follow-up. 'Screen Memories' begins in fine style with the stomach-wrenching opener 'The Combine', where keyboard flourishes and a far-off digitised choir dazzle as Maus eerily croons: "I see the combine coming / It's gonna dust us all to nothing". Equally intriguing is 'Touchdown', with its mellow synths contrasting cleverly with the potent thrust of aggression delivered within its sporting focus ("forward drive across the line!").