Since their self-titled debut in 1997, Matmos has been making both the most intelligent and the most listenable electronica around. Their genius lies in substituting “natural” sound (the most outrageous example being a recording of crayfish synapses snapping) for the genre’s usual substrate of computer generated sound. What you end up with is nature transformed—the elimination of all but the source code in a by turns urgent and danceable collage.
Matmos cemented their reputation with 1998’s The West, in which the San Francisco duo tweaked and molded the sounds of avant-twang bands such as The Radar Brothers, Acetone and Papa M into some sort of retro-futurist hootenanny. The West caused writers at The Wire to hemmhorage pages of gushing ink and as a result Matmos have spent the last couple of years doing what all “made” duos should do: recording with Björk and playing sets at Paris’s surreal pantheon to institutionalized innovation, the Centre Pompidou.
Not to be typecast, core members Drew Daniel and m.c. Schmidt (no, his initials really are m.c.!) have taken their penchant for the organic into the slurping and cracking realm of plastic surgery. The result is appropriately horrifying, all the more so since this record is so darn fun to listen to.
Let’s be clear: this is not “found” sound, in which our egghead heroes (one of whom is pursuing a Ph.D. at Berkeley in addition to his side project changing the face of electronic music) record the sounds of, say, “The Operation Channel” on public access. Daniel and Schmidt actually negotiated with California plastic surgeons to gain access to and recording privileges in the operating room. Can you imagine going in for liposuction and encountering an awkward man in scrubs and glasses holding a mike? Apparently the vain and insecure were more than willing to let Daniel hold the mike up to their nose as the doctor broke and shaved the brittle bones, and were equally eager to proffer their cottage-cheese-like fannies as Matmos memorialized the liposuction swoosh of liquid fat evacuating its rightfully earned home. Anything in the name of art.
Once properly mixed and Matmotized, however, the sounds are an alternately atmospheric and toe-tapping soundscape without any immediately recognizable trace of their icky roots. I actually listened to this record a few times through without knowing the source: I thought I recognized a cicada, and I thought the sucking noises were made by someone’s mouth. I found certain tracks soothingly organic, compared, for example, with Autechre’s mathematical chatter. And they are that, but it really changed the way I felt to realize where the sounds were coming from: the mind substitutes all sorts of horrifying scenes from the already-horrifying landscape of technology-assisted beauty, of plastic barbie bodies and malleable flesh.
The album starts with an infectious beat of snips and squishy swooshes, underscored by moody synthesizer and punctuated by more atmospheric sections, which feature what sound like real drums and guitar, plus human voices saying “now I know why it fits,” and finishing with a cryptic “and so on.” This is the liposuction song, cleverly titled “lipostudio . . . and so on”. (Incidentally, Matmos’ website offers a complete list of all source sounds for the “detail oriented.”) From here we move on through laser eye surgery (“l.a.s.i.k,” with all the high pitched hiss and fuzz we might imagine), hearing aids (“spondee”), acupuncture (“ur tchun tan tse qi”), rat cages (“for felix (and all the rats)”, apparently dedicated to the couple’s pet), human skulls (“momento mori”) and nose jobs (“caliifornia rhinoplasty”).
Most exciting to these ears were “spondee”, “ur tchun tan tse qi” (how is anyone ever going to pronounce that??) and “california rhinoplasty.” The last features the clips and cracks of several different nose job operations to create a chillingly mobile beat, and is probably the most obvious candidate for Number One Gross Out—not recommended for the squeamish (though if you don’t tell them what they’re hearing they’ll be bopping around the dance floor). “Ur tchun tan tse qi” is the acupuncture song, apparently constructed from a device which measures the electrical response of the skin at the different pressure points. This is the song I found the most soothing. The different spikes and blips are laid out over an unshakable bassline, and the electrical response does truly at one point sound just like the high midsummer drone of cicadas, creating an atmosphere at once uncanny and wistful.
Finally, “spondee” features a certified audiologist reading different words, such as “oatmeal” or “bathtub”, each examples of spondees, which for those of you who may have forgotten your high school poetics are words whose two syllables get equal emphasis. After each word comes a sound that might or might not be a “real” reference to the sound named—“railroad” is followed by what sounds like the clang of a railroad crossing; “sunshine” evokes a witty cock crowing, and “oatmeal” drips and gushes in a way that we can only hope is truly related to the gray foodstuff and is not in fact the drooling of some other, more nefarious substance.
Which is why “spondee” seems so perfectly to express what’s going on with Matmos’ plan to both undermine and dominate the senses: it may be organic, but with these guys in charge you’ll be dancing to the sound of bones cracking in no time. Your ears belong to them, so take firm hold of your gag reflex and dive in.