When German duo Mouse on Mars released its "Frosch" single in 1994, it was the first salvo in a growing global attempt to turn ambient techno inside out. Jan Werner and Andi Toma came to the proceedings with an interest in Can's cerebral bass grooves, but they showed a willingness to mix frizzed-out noise as well. Thing is, like a lot of Teutonic groovemongers, their efforts were often clinical and off-putting: Between 1997's brittle Autoditacker and the slight atmospherics they drafted for last year's soundtrack Glam, they've had problems striking the right balance of humane melody and postmodern rhythm. Such are the pitfalls of composing with a PowerBook.
Mouse on Mars solves the problem on Niun Niggung not by reaching reflexively for dub samples (techno's Hamburger Helper), but by experimenting with instrumentation and, at least some of the time, making hummable music. The duo's interest in making spiky splats of white noise is still evident on "Distroia" and "Dispothek," but the chill austerity of those tracks is tempered with a wider palette of ideas. Part of the credit goes to the small chamber orchestra enlisted for the record, which includes French horn, flute, clarinet, fiddle, trumpet, cello, and violin. Credit also Werner and Toma's ability to make something out of it. The opening "Download Sofist" follows an elegant guitar and horn pattern before knocking it down in grand style; similarly, "Diskdusk" sets a wafting keyboard melody against a beat that moves from drum 'n' bass stutter to dance-floor-ready and back again.
Perhaps most important, though, is the fact that Niun Niggung is the duo's funniest record -- experimental electronic music with a sense of humor is an extremely rare thing. But a sense of fun is there in the way the beats blurt against the Sousa-like horns on "Mykologics," the summery funk keyboard bluster of "Pinwheel Herman," and the title alone of the frenzied and cinematic "Yippie." Somewhere between arctic experimentation and car-commercial techno, Werner and Toma have mapped out a point where their music can keep an edge as well as carry a tune; they've earned the right to manipulate all the warbles and gurgles their switches, wires, and buttons can muster.