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Matmos - A Marriage of True Minds

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Artist: Matmos

Album: A Marriage of True Minds

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Feb. 19, 2013

Why are Drew Daniel, MC Schmidt, et al. chanting about pulses, heavy breathing, white noise, and holes in the air? Why do they keep talking about triangles of various sizes, shapes and colors? How do covers of Holger Hiller and Buzzcocks fit in? And what the hell is the person on the album cover wearing on his face?

Our understanding of a Matmos record always starts with an understanding of its concept, the extra-musical idea that forms the album’s metaphysical core. Thus, reviews of Matmos albums invariably center around an explication of that concept. What is it? How do they articulate it and how successful is that articulation? And, most importantly, what crazy sound sources does it let them draw from? The sound of the music is always inherently secondary, a material manifestation of a larger construct. So I started to wonder if a Matmos record could exist and be understood outside of its concept. I’d like to think that Civil War would sound just as amazing without knowing that it’s a bizarre gloss of the music of the English and American civil wars, or that A Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast would still cohere without knowledge of its absurdist portraiture, or that Supreme Balloon would captivate without the group’s declaration that it used no microphones. And I can’t help wondering what a Matmos album would sound like on a naïve listening, how I would process the music, and whether or not the “theme” could be intuited from the music itself.

Ideally, I would have listened to A Marriage of True Minds, their eighth or so album, and written this review without looking at liner notes or reading anything about any of it, to see what I picked up on. Alas, when The Ganzfeld EP came out last year, I spoiled it, immediately reading about the concept before even putting on the CD, learning what ideas were unifying Daniel’s and Schmidt’s brains. But I’m not going to pass that info on to you just yet. Instead, let’s just talk about the music itself. The first two tracks included a burbling burst of spy-jazz and a minimal house remix by RRose of Sandwell District. The third track, “Just Waves,” was more perplexing: a Matmos-ized version of Stockhausen’s Stimmung with Daniel, Schmidt, Dan Deacon, Angel Deradoorian (Dirty Projectors), and Clodagh Simonds (Fovea Hex) reciting nonsense over a shifting background of electronic waves. It’s got a wonderfully austere new-music vibe, simultaneously severe and strangely captivating.

For the full length, what jumps out first are the two covers of songs written in relatively recent memory: Holger Hiller’s “You,” and Buzzcocks’ “ESP.” “You” opens the album and is remarkably “straight,” going so far as to iron out some of the kinks of Hiller’s original version, letting his sonorous piano chords, jazzy bass-line, and low-key beat carry the day while Carly Ptak (Nautical Almanac) talks about telepathy. At the end of the album, “ESP” is an entirely different beast. For most of its eight-minute duration, it is: a mix of heavy, ringing power chords; garbled vocals that may or may not be intoning Pete Shelley’s lyrics; martial drumbeats; and little bursts of Matmos-esque percussion and analog synths. Only in the last few minutes does it resolve into something that resembles Buzzcocks’ buoyant original.

In between the covers are a series of fairly “standard” Matmos IDM tracks that seem to be roughly half way between the bleeps and bloops of Supreme Balloon and the dancier tracks on A Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast. So there are lots of odd, clipped samples that form percussion beds upon which more microscopic samples are layered to create the tunes. Every sound is crisp, with their signature attention to the smallest sonic details. “Very Large Green Triangles” stands out from the mix by turning its menagerie of sounds (which include walls of strings, tuned triangles, vaguely honky-tonk piano, squelchy bass-lines and percussion, buzzy synths, and ominous spoken vocals) into something that obliquely approaches a dance-floor stomper. The version on Ganzfeld goes even farther in that direction, though it’s “Tunnel” that truly thumps. And “Aesthetic Vehicle” feels like the convergence of Tangerine Dream and Tinariwen with endless melodies and an engaged-yet-relaxed vibe. But in between, some of these tunes feel a little bit generic; those tracks have notable features, but they don’t seem to do anything that’s all that different from other Matmos albums. That said, almost all of their albums suffer from some kind of lull, something no theme in the world could really correct.

And now, back to that theme. Unlike past albums, this album’s theme is an actual metaphysical idea, rather than an excuse to use sounds from analog synths, rabbit pelts, Germs’ burns, liposuction, or whatever else. The theme thus leaves no sonic trace; we are left to intuit it, which I suppose is fitting, since it has to do with telepathy and the Ganzfeld experiment: Matmos brought in a bunch of guests (who they term “percipients,” drawn from their cadre of well-known friends and collaborators), put them in a sensory deprivation chamber with halved ping-pong balls over their eyes and headphones playing white noise on their ears, and had them lie down on a mattress with a gentle red light beaming overhead – hence, the album cover image. The percipients were instructed to empty their minds and speak, sing, or hum any thoughts that appeared, while Drew Daniel was in the next room, concentrating on beaming “the concept of the new Matmos album” to them. These sessions produced the background material for the album, and each track has its own text. Sometimes these texts appear in the song as in “Tunnels,” “Very Large Green Triangle,” “Just Waves,” and “In Search of a Lost Faculty.” In “Ross Transcript,” the text serves as a (surreal) outline for what happens musically. But for the rest of the album, the connection is somewhat more mysterious. Perhaps, then, the true theme of this album really is simply “the concept of the new Matmos album,” leaving it open to the listener to discern just what that means. It could almost be an anti-concept, which would be wonderfully novel. It still doesn’t explain why everyone keeps talking about triangles, though.

By Dan Ruccia

Other Reviews of Matmos

Live, High and Dirty

The Civil War

The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast

Supreme Balloon

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View all articles by Dan Ruccia

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