Matmos: The West

[10 August 2008]

By David Abravanel

Matmos are terrible at going halfway. If you’ve heard of the experimental electronic music-making duo of Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel, it’s likely either A) because of their work with Björk, both on her albums Vespertine and Medúlla, and as a supporting act and part of her band on the Vespertine tour, or B) from reading or hearing about a couple of kooks who use plastic surgery noises, semen splattering on a contact microphone, and cigarette burns to make music (just to name a few). This unlikely collection of sound sources—an übermensch descendant of Pierre Schaeffer and the innovators of tape-based musique concrete (an experimental precursor to sampling)—is almost always part of a grander idea, a purposeful theme in which the sound fits.

Matmos aren’t as eccentrically limiting as Matthew Herbert, a kindred spirit whose “PCCOM (Personal Contract for the Composition of Music)” prescribes certain vows of chastity to the process of music-making, but, to reiterate, they aren’t much for half-assing. Each track—and in many cases, each album—has a theme, and Schmidt, Daniel, and their ever-revolving and expanding cast of co-conspirators go to great lengths to aim for a chosen vibe. Take, for example, the appearance of “amplified bible” on “Action at a Distance”, the second track on The West, a long out-of-print classic that now returns on CD and vinyl again, a decade after its initial release. There’s nothing in the piece to reveal this sound source to the listener, but from the meticulous liner notes (featuring detailed accounts of every contribution from every musician), it’s safe to assume that Matmos intend for us to know that it’s there.

The West is full of similar such examples: opener “Last Delicious Cigarette” features Schmidt playing “cigarette” and “dice”, along with the Korg Mono/Poly synthesizer. It is this intersection between the synthetic sounds and cut-ups of the future and the dusty, baking sounds that provided the aural mythology of the Western United States that frames the album. It’s my personal bias, but more recent evidence suggests that such a marriage is destined to be boring as tumbleweed. I can’t help but think of the dullest passages of Four Tet and Caribou albums, or the ill-fated Valley of the Giant project. Perhaps folky guitars and violins were simply not meant to crossbreed with sequencers, samplers, and synthesizers? 

Thankfully, this is not the case with The West. Matmos have done their homework—in interviews, Daniel has criticized some of Schaeffer’s work for an adherence to experimentalism and non-musical composition, as it often lead to sonic doldrums. The West works so well because it never forgets to pounce and drive. Take, as a prime example, the title track and centerpiece of the album. The piece takes off like a slow train, all manipulated guitar squeals and rings, gradually giving way to synths. Then comes a magnificent breakdown, featuring thick rolling bass line and subtly manipulated acoustic percussion that maintains the train analogy. This in turn gives way to another peaceful section of crystalline slide guitar, which valleys for another few minutes in sample-edit land before once again emerging with the triumphant bass and drums at the lead. This peak-and-valley method of sequencing plays to folk music’s historic role as a storyteller; Matmos are just using keys, guitars, and found sounds to sing. Rare vocal snippets do pop up, including a surprisingly funky repetition of the phrase “It / It / It / Was” from friend Wiebke Ratzeburg.

This is another strength of The West: it’s a collaborative effort, featuring contributions from a number of different guests hosted by the duo in San Francisco during their friends’ wedding. This kind of melting pot collaboration is commonplace for most Matmos albums; rarely do the duo produce a track without being informed by creative partners such as Wobbly, J Lesser, or Keith Fullerton Whitman. In this sense, The West, like every Matmos record, doesn’t sound quite like any other Matmos record. Sure, there are certain motifs that recur on multiple releases—a fondness for clicky minimal sound editing, a playful regard for far-reaching found sounds—but the fact remains that The West still features a number of unique collaborators.

Perhaps the most well-known here is David Pajo, the former Slint (and later Zwan and Papa M) guitarist, who brings a distinctly Slintly flavor to the dissonant guitar phrase in album closer “Tonight, The End”. “Tonight” plays out like a Slint song on a corrupted hard drive, with Pajo’s dark licks spiraling away into stuttering percussion, wailing horns, and infinite digital clicks and cuts. It’s clear that the editing process for this record must have been rather arduous. Elsewhere, on “The Sun on 5 at 152”, Mark Lightcap’s minor-major guitar shifts frame the album’s most fragilely deconstructed piece, as the smallest particles of sound are glitched out until they become gorgeous drones. “The Sun” also provides a neat little foreshadowing to Lightcap’s extensive work on 2003’s The Civil War, a record featuring some themes and sounds that overlap with The West.

The unique collaborators on this album make it one-of-a-kind, while its merger of the past, present, and future conceptions of music (clashing folk, a genre lent to purism and tradition, with radically futuristic electronics and digital edits) freeze it in timelessness. It’s been 10 years since The West was first released, and it’d be a lie to say that nothing else has sounded like it in the years since. But few acts have rivaled the sound captured here, perfectly sequenced at five essential tracks. Matmos have had more visible albums over the rest of their career, but The West, certainly their most stylistically consistent, once again makes a good run for one of their best.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/matmos-the-west/