The Civil War, Matador
Friday 19 September 2003
The San Franciscan electronic duo Matmos, aka Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel, are named after the intergalactic goo in the film Barbarella, and are best known as Björk's backing band. Going on the strength of their extraordinary fifth album, this is the least of their achievements. The Civil War is Chaucer meets Autechre by way of the Wild West.
Their abstract, eccentric approach is confirmed in the the opening tracks. "Regicide" includes the sound of recorders, bagpipes and acoustic guitar, and the wilfully discordant "Z.O.C.K (Zealous Order of Candied Knights)" pitches the hurdy-gurdy, bassoon and tuba alongside drums and violins. "Reconstruction" starts with a simple drum beat redolent of Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life", and then progresses into a spooky minimalist collage of layered feedback and disembodied vocal samples. "Yield To Total Elation" builds slowly from gentle chimes to synthesised sound effects reminiscent of wafting trees, meteors flitting overhead and, less pleasantly, metal scraping against metal.
Happily, Matmos have avoided the austerity that blights many electronica albums. Their music is pristine, but warm and antiquated. The pair dissect sound like forensic scientists at a crime scene, but far from dispassionately: there are melodies amid the effects, which range from the warm and squelchy to the blood-curdlingly abrasive. Their juxtapositions are mischievous and thrillingly bold: medieval jigs rub shoulders with country ballads and pastoral folk. Previously, the duo have restricted themselves to single sound sources - popping balloons, burning cigarettes, even the neural synapse of a crayfish - reducing them to their constituent parts and reassembling them until a whole new sound emerges. Their last release, the sinisterly-titled A Chance to Cut is the Chance to Cure, explored cosmetic surgery and featured such audible delights as liposuction, chin implants and the sound of a nose being broken.
The Civil War has a looser, less chilling theme, forming an aural treatise on medieval English folk and 19th-century Americana. Matmos's predilection for outlandish sample sources shows no signs of abating, however: "Pelt and Holler" is constructed almost entirely out of the sound of a rabbit pelt, and "The Struggle Against Unreality Begins" features the sound of blood moving through Schmidt's carotid artery.
By turns unsettling and funny, The Civil War is an album that defies categorisation. Few musicians can really claim to be seriously pushing at the boundaries of modern music. To Matmos, however, it's second nature.
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