The first Matmos album is a disappointment. A sense of ennui permeates the performances, and gifted Bay Area sonic assemblers Andrew Daniel and Martin Schmidt haven’t got their studio legs yet. The beats, never simply dancefloor driven nor exercises in youthful ebullience, do not combine a later embrace of transcendental experimentation and hip-hoppy beatdowns. But there is already an endearing quality to their mad scientist constructions of whimsical trance collages: a philosophy that links the everyday audio detritus of our lives with mobile, metropolitan non-human noise, the clink-clank of crafty drum machines and the gentle throb of dueling synthesizers. The music is an object of exchange, an agent of communication and conversion. All of the songs have intelligence, alertness, courage and fluidity. (Likewise, each Matmos album features superb artwork, intelligent sequencing, superior sound production and expert song titling.)
Quasi-Objects is a huge step beyond the debut. Working small, each tangential idea gets a healthy display and then is allowed to merge with larger patterns of musical anti-music. There is still too much knob twisting wizardry for no apparent reason, but what seemed bulky and obdurate on the debut becomes silkily smooth here. The highlight, which cooks at a simmering heat, is “The Banjo’s Categorical Gut.” This epic justifies wordless, experimental, edgily serene dance music.
West is a fine and patient elevation of the band’s aesthetic. Quirkier beats, a few guest stars, a more rockin’ foundation in places and a surer sense of the value of getting in and out quickly all help the album along. There are many bands, artistic collectives and DJs working this same field (Labradford, Mouse on Mars, Rome, Trans Am), but on West Matmos outstrips them. The band turns a corner here: the songs purposelessly play off each other, gathering intensity and depth from their shadowy and shadowed selves.
A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure is many things: inevitable, insane and their finest album. Both raised in households of doctors, Matmos here deals with the idea – and corresponding sounds — of seven types of surgery (yeuch!). The duo is at its most audacious, cleverly adding avant-garde embroidery upon seamless sonic communities. The focus here is wordless narratives that rise and fall like the oscillating EKG’s of a prone patient. This album is pellucid in execution and respectful in its desire to resurrect sleepy and commercial minds made numb by everyday superficial noise. And, no, there is nothing superficial about hearing the actual operations being performed.
The Civil War is the most fun: still quietly bombastic and still occasionally in search of an author, the spacey, haunted music bounces from the ethereal to the grounded dirt that our shoes kick away on imagined dance floors. The cast includes many San Fran and NYC scenesters: pianist David Grubbs, guitarist Mark Lightcap, drummer Tim Barnes, dobro player Jay Lesser and violinist Bevin Blectum. The brilliant “Zealous Order of Candied Knights” combines a Pythonesque sense of levity with a killer hurdy gurdy and a melody straight from Steeleye Span. This fanciful romp points to a new road for dance hall DJs and studio inventors.
Rat Relocation Program is deeply experimental and variously exasperating and rewarding. The duo’s exacting standards eliminate routine journeys, repeated moments and insipid processes. Instead, this work is too obscure. The first of the disc’s two lengthy tracks stars recorded rats, while the second concerns their removal. The poverty of ideas is exacerbated by the diminishment of the blurry lines between object and subject. Sometimes great stoner ideas stay half-baked.