Midway through the first two tracks on Matmos' The Civil War, the follow-up to 2001's well-received A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, you're sitting there asking yourself, "Is this some kind of joke?"
Sure, it's a concept album to a certain degree like Cure, which drew from samples of surgeries among other things. But are they serious about this one? The bagpipes and marching drums have to be a joke -- don't they? It's got to be like the pictures of the band inside the CD adorned in some kind of hilarious 19th century garb. They're giving us a big wink and we're in on the joke, right?
Or, conversely, is this all done with a straight face. The album is, after all, called The Civil War. The bagpipes and drums would make sense. And we all know how far they're willing to go to be true to the concept. (We mentioned the surgery samplings?)
Truth is, I still don't think I know for sure.
"Regicide", with its initial blast of droning bagpipe-like noise, and "Zealous Order of Candid Knights" both sound like they could be entirely serious (which, in that case, is not a good thing) or a good joke at the listener's expense (also not a good thing). Yet, things start to sort themselves out by the third track, the aptly titled "Reconstruction", and the vision becomes clear, though still shockingly awkward.
While the first two tracks jolt you, make you unsure of where you are and what you're listening to, "Reconstruction" gives you a chance to catch your breath. Beginning with the lonely rap-tap-tap of a marching snare drum, the track is then interrupted with blasts of lost radio or television transmissions. In a way, it's bringing us back to reality, back to the future. It's a much more modern track than the previous two, infused with some electric guitar and synthesizer sounds, but it, too, is a bit awkward. We can't quite place where -- both literally and figuratively -- we are supposed to be. But the track eventually disintegrates and we are left with a serene and beautiful guitar piece that evokes the fleeting acoustic guitar solo on Wilco's transcendent "Poor Places". It's truly a revelation, the kind of moment that can make an electronic album. It's one of the joys of the genre. The moment where the confusion of a loud, fractured world finally implodes and we are left with that lone strain of music, like a teardrop rolling down a weary cheek.
Unfortunately, it's also the last bit of good news for Matmos and The Civil War. Tracks like "For the Trees" and "The Struggle against Unreality Begins" never add up to anything more than jittery post-rock exercises in futility. There seems to be some sort of attempt at fusion here, a line being drawn between modern times and the Civil War era. Maybe it's supposed to be some sort of political message, a statement on the divided times we live in. But if it is, that's never clear. The trick with electronic music is to keep our attention long enough that we wonder what's coming next. There is an implicit promise in the genre of a payoff, of a "Reconstruction"-like disclosure. But there absolutely has to be more than one of those per record. Otherwise, we're left wondering what it is we are supposed to be listening for, listening to. And that's never good, no matter which side of the war you're on.