In music, in general, combining high conceptual aims with what we call accessibility (a troublesome concept on its own) is not an easy thing to pull off. My no doubt annoyingly subjective list of musicians who’ve achieved a balancing in this equation (ear-friendliness + modernity) would include, say, Robert Wyatt, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Jon Hassell, Holger Czukay, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Terje Rypdal, Annette Peacock, Diamanda Galás, Coil and the Velvet Underground. This varied bunch shares the notion of basing the work on musical or thematic ideas, and in so doing not skimping on the soul; the goal is a kind of beauty.
Having long specialized in heavily concept-laden albums, Matmos fall roughly into this category of the musical boundary-smasher who makes music that’s genuinely musical and doesn’t stray into (though related) “sound art” realms. Matmos — the now Baltimore-based (previously San Francisco) duo of M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel — released Quasi-Object in 1998, and it featured the sound of a dissected crayfish and lightly rubbed rabbit fur, among other biological things. Their 2001 album A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure sculpted witty dance tracks out of sampled and rhythmatized sounds that emanated from the body. These pulpy, surgical sploshes of unfamiliar sonority were intricately edited, looped, degraded and enhanced into supremely melodic, peppy-beated sort of alterna-populist techno tunes.
After serving a stint as Bjork’s touring band and then creating the great but in hindsight not so gross album called The Civil War (2003), which mixed American Civil War-era instruments and melodies with newfangled electronics, Matmos issued The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast (2006), comprising tributes to 10 people they admire, including William S. Burroughs, Darby Crash, Joe Meek, Patricia Highsmith and King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Both of the latter records offered Schmidt and Daniel’s trademarked sophisticated programming and, on The Rose, beautifully bizarre textures: teeth grinding, flesh being burned by cigarettes, cows eating or having their uteruses pumped full of air with a vacuum cleaner and played like a bagpipe. On the kitschy-cool Supreme Balloon (2008) the duo (who are also a couple) used nothing but vintage analog synths and ancient electronic devices — no microphones, no vocals, no sounds of cigarettes burning flesh — to thump, toot, whoosh and squeal in six-layers-thick irony (Why yes, it does sound like video-game music, doesn’t it?). The cleanly recorded Ultimate Care II (2016) made wondrous music solely from the sounds of the titular washing machine, making one long track that traverses humorously/funkily in rhythmic/melodic variations that start with the scritch of the wash-size selection wheel and ends with the alert noise that signals the load is done.
You get more of this as-deep-as-you-want-it-to-be on Matmos’ new Plastic Anniversary, which culls spectacular sonics from Styrofoam coolers, police riot shields, silicone gel breast implants, synthetic human fat and the all-plastics like. Sprightly beats and sparkly melodies keep the tunes sort of jolly and good-humored, with choice interludes of tonally ambiguous, mysterious type stuff, too, leavening the implied dark feeling of the whole thing really being about environmental devastation.
Or is it? Could be it really is just a tribute to plastic, a substance which, after all, does have some worthy attributes (they make replacement body parts with it, don’t they?). The bubbly opening track, “Breaking Bread,” was constructed from the plucked and twanged fragments of broken vinyl records by ‘70s soft-rockers Bread. A cartoony collection of sequenced scritchy-scratchy sounds ‘n’ squiggles lightly drizzled like salad dressing over a rumba-like rhythm, it holds deep in the mix a variety of little sounds like…like…the sound of someone eating crackers in bed. “The Crying Pill” asks us to swallow a nocturnal synth-/sample sequence that abruptly gets jostled into a spikier bit that’s still a bit goofy; these synths and samples often have an animallike effect, and the piece maintains interest via a wild vista of shifting emotional turfs as you witness Matmos running the same theme through assorted sets of instrumental parameters, such as harpsichordish tones popping up against that moonlit synth. At the end, there’s a shift into a cryptic flickering ambience.
The Singing Tube
The Saturday-morning cartoon aspect of all this doesn’t diminish its impact or sheer musical interest. While overall the vibe is playful, the timbral palette is very wide and the songs are so expertly arranged, thus suggestive of possibilities, musical and otherwise. “The Singing Tube”’s layered rhythm sequences and sundry percussive timbres could pass for a two-note-harmony bass guitar. “Collapse of the Fourth Kingdom”’s whistles, carnaval-type polyrhythms, electronic elephant cries and buglike skittering sounds herald a finale that sounds like the entire bleedin’ thing is melting back down to nothingness. Much of this stuff achieves a musical ambiguity as well, another experience of the mind and heart that’s difficult to achieve in music, though you’d think otherwise. And when the title track arrives it really is a triumph of music that is radiantly redolent of a time and place that you can’t quite place, like an old, scratched-up and strange film might do. Beautifully mixed for “distance” and stately with brass tootings, this is a grand entrance hall in a parallel universe in the faraway future or the distant past.
Matmos never seem weighted down by overly cerebral claptrap. In fact, they seem quite buoyed by overly cerebral claptrap, like it’s a challenge or something. While one senses a gravity of intent in tracks like the closing “Plastisphere” — a post-meltdown ambience of crackling, wind-like sonorities over a parched aural terrain that’s obviously devoid of humans, though not their after-image — in the main there’s a practicality at play on Plastic Anniversary, a utilitarian aspect: “Fanfare for Polyethylene Waste Containers” samples trombones and explores general dynamics and juxtaposition of audio textures in an enlightened and illuminating way, but perhaps more importantly, a mere casual listening to this particular ritual/march from another dimension — a better one, possibly — has the effect of lightening one’s load, coloring the day in a super-pleasant way. Happy or sad or somehere in between, it’s a fascinating place to be.
John Payne is Music Critic at Riot Material. He also writes about music and film at publications including Mojo, The Quietus, Red Bulletin, Drum!, High Times and Bluefat. Mr. Payne is the former music editor of LA Weekly, and the author of the forthcoming official Diamanda Galás biography Homicidal Love Songs and editor/co-author of Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer (Unbound, spring 2019).