Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Saturday, October 7 2000, 9:42 AM
Matmos has an original and contemplative beauty derived from an understanding that lived sound is an assembly of possibilities. To reassemble the sounds of human life, which characterizes the Matmos style, is an inevitably political act. This is materialist music rewoven from fragments of daily soundscapes: Marxism does glossolalia. No sound, whatever the apparent strangeness of its source, is alien. A plastic surgeon breaking cartilage for a nose job is as useful as a whoopee cushion is as useful as a sweet fart. Writing has ended; sonic quotation prevails. The originating sense of fragments disappears into the mix and another life of audibility emerges.
The Matmos duo of MC Schmidt and Drew Daniel, occupy themselves with mixing this rich array of adapted clamor into tense, nervy rhythms. These rhythms remain understated and the subject of reiterated explorations. The first track of this album, 'Last Delicious Cigarette', establishes that Schmidt and Daniel like taking their time to explore. Turning pages, repeated guitar chords, war sounds, and mechanical noises populate 'Action at a Distance.' A pressure builds that remains on the quiet side of explosion.
Sit back and pay attention: Matmos will teach you to listen differently to the world. Their contemplative inquiries last for lengthy tracks: the composition does not rush. As one British critic accurately described this effect, it is "a crunchy, micro-techno which evolves over long periods into gibbering splendour." It all might be compared to listening to a Cubist painting, where separate sound elements are delineated and then assembled into a composite panorama. A wiggly line of understated humor sometimes plays here too: when it does, listeners are never quite certain whether Matmos is entertaining the audience or themselves.
An orchestral track like 'Sun on S at 152' begins with a guitar solo and pursues the possibilities of repeated chords into a quick forest of repetitive notes. A new electronic soundscape spreads from a pattern that began as a couple guitar chords as the composition eventually fades back into a re-established harmony of guitar, bass, and percussion playing a slow American folk motif. Yet the electronic hum and sliding minor notes that percolate through again remind listeners that they inhabit an acoustical world where certainties are not possible, where expectations are the subjects of alteration.
That same sense of the familiar gone awry characterizes the reissued title track, 'The West', where the musical topography of the Western-style song is first stated and then re-made. It's the missing soundtrack for the ruminative landscapes of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, at moments pocked with gloom and at moments moved by musical purposes that will reveal themselves shortly. An impressionistic percussion line runs like a backbone through most of this closely-assembled composition, surfacing occasionally to link everything from the sampled sounds of a car engine starting to an electronic keyboard underlay to voices trapped within their own repetition. What is striking here is the breath of sound and how far the composition moves from its original themes. The West of this lengthy montage is a mosaic of possibility, undefined as to aesthetic prospect or prospective threat.
A Matmos song often follows a vein of expression by working to achieve a fixated stare at its own circularity. An initial flat affect gains new features as the song continues. A mood builds, crystallizes and fragments into another mood. 'Tonight, the End' has a somber edge; then its dark mosaic splinters and dissipates. Sometimes the mood can head into the dramatic, with large and sweeping background notes, as in 'Sun on 280 to the 1.' The recombinatory unspecificity of the Matmos compositional style and its assemblages create continual mood shifts. For sheer fun, 'Count Tweakula' is a very attractive piece, good for dancing to the sounds of creaking. Somberness returns in the last two tracks of the album, 'The Struggle' and 'You Can't Win', which are reflective instrumental essays.
San Francisco-based Matmos is popular in Europe, beginning with their first self-released album and rising further with the 1998 full-length, Quasi-Objects, recently made available as an import in the US via the band's home label, Matador. The Westmay be difficult to find, since it came out last year and only recently came back into print, but the reissue of this extremely important record is well-worth the effort of seeking out. In the meantime, Matmos has since released Full on Night on Quarterstick as a mutual de-mix effort with their friends, Louisville chamber punks The Rachel's, and are about to begin a joint East Coast tour starting in mid-October. This is a group that my intuition tells me would almost be more interesting to see live, because if my interpretation of The West is correct, Matmos lives where sound is being reborn.
The West is a Deluxe Records release