Planet High School is a title that screams “concept album.” It appears we’ve entered an age when even a genre as oblique as electronic, “instrumental hip-hop” can feel zeitgeisty if it wants to. Beat-maestro Mux Mool’s sophomore full-length release imagines America as a culture of perma-teenagers, skipping from rental property to rental property, without enough bones in the bank to broker a mortgage down payment, but who could care less about that.
Thankfully, there’s always something more playful than brooding in Mux Mool’s sonic fabrics, though they can possess the too-eager, breathless quality of a young composer who’s got it, but afraid to do less than broadcast their full virtuosic range at any given time. Similarly, these were the faults of his debut LP, 2010’s Skulltaste, which was brilliant, but varied to a disadvantage, and ultimately weakened by its ambitious length. Each track on Skulltaste was compact and inscrutable, containing a well-developed landscape, although a very different one, from one song to the next. But Skulltaste as a whole wasn’t about anything.
And what of this “concept”? There’s actually not much more buoyancy infused into these tracks than most of Mux Mool’s repertoire. Sure, teenage themes abound in song titles that invoke grade school-only imagery “Hand On The Scantron”) and a chaos-theory effect reworked into a sex joke (“The Butterfly Technique”). Words aside, the songs themselves are exactly as scattered as the life of a recent liberal-arts-grad whose options for pretty much everything besides fun and agony are considerably narrow. The second cut, “Live At 7-11” opens comfortably with chill, woozy loops only to explode halfway through with a jittery, hard house-style amen break beneath a high theremin howl—and abruptly fade out with a MIDI riff as quaint a Super Mario Bros. sky level. It’s a track far too schizophrenic to actually work, but it’s epic enough to merit multiple bewildered listens.
Over all, on Planet High School, the totally crazy manages to feel sunny and bright. The strongest cut, “The Butterfly Technique,” begins with clipped chimes and church bells and samples of rumbling, boogie-woogie keyboarding. The mood is a hopeful one, the dawning of a new day, until a vocal sample reveals that what we’re experiencing isn’t actually tomorrow, it’s a far more innocent time—1999: The true year of nostalgia for today’s hustling millennial.
Darkness creeps in only on “Get Yer Alphabets (Guns),” which wants to be the album’s coups de grâce, what with its cryptically provocative title and heavy-handed nostalgia via old-skool break beats and a frenetic sample assault—seriously, we get everything from misdialed-number bleeps to dot-matrix printers to cartoon theme songs. It’s the kind of montage that would make you lose your shit if you were at a live DJ set, but it weighs in here with too much misguided self-importance.
In his latest, Mux Mool has managed to produce another album as solid as it is thwarted by its limitations. What’s refreshing is that we now have an artist who believes that instrumental electronic dance music can contain as much socio-political commentary as anything with an explicit lyrical message—an assertion that would be borderline pretentious if he didn’t manage to come so close to pulling it off.