Relentlessly high concept electronic duo relaxes the rules, except for one, and come up with a winning but divided record.
Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt have been making records for ten years now, and they have yet to put one out that's conceptually less than intriguing. Their self-titled debut and Quasi-Objects established their tendency to sample just about anything (amplified crayfish nerve tissue, anyone?) and then took it to its logical extent on the latter with its one-object-per-track structure. The West featured live musicians playing and manipulated by the duo into a warped pastiche of Western soundtracks, and they followed that up with the daring, kind of gross medical sounds of A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, which featured perhaps the comedy high point of their career to date when "California Rhinoplasty" juxtaposed sounds of the titular surgery with, yes, a nose flute. Since then they've gone folk/medieval (The Civil War) and issued a surprisingly sonically diverse and appropriately sampled series of tributes to historical figures with The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast, but at this point they were rapidly in danger of becoming the electronic/musique concrete equivalent of Merzbow: Fascinating in the abstract, but beginning to get tiresome in practice.
The duo's more conventional work with Björk, both live and remixing, was extremely promising, as was Daniel's hardcore-goes-house cover album as The Soft Pink Truth, but I was still bracing for the concept of their next release. Supreme Balloon, eh? What were they going to sample this time? And while they've proven time and time again that they can craft compelling, even moving music from just about anything, was this the time their imagination was finally going to leapfrog their musical sense?
The answer is no, mostly because they've abandoned any real concept for a simple rule: Everything on this record comes from some sort of synthesizer. Yes, the guys who've made tracks out of office furniture, surgery, rat cages, semen hitting paper (and yes, balloons), have made an album in which not a single microphone is employed. Of course, it's Matmos; these aren't your everyday synthesizers. Sometimes they're one-off devices you need to travel to France to use, some are just old and rare, sometimes they're 'breath controlled oscillators' wielded by saxophonists who've worked with Sun Ra and now lead his Arkestra, sometimes they're played by Lesser or Wobbly or Keith Fullerton Whitman (or, on a bonus vinyl track I haven't heard, by Terry freakin' Riley).
In practice, of course, the vast majority of us can't tell any of these apart in any really meaningful way (although I can only imagine the almost pornographic thrills Supreme Balloon could provide to serious gearheads). What you'll notice when "Rainbow Flag" squelches to life is how fun it sounds. Matmos records aren't nearly as po-faced as you might think from all the intellectual heavy-lifting they do, but "Rainbow Flag" (possible political statement in the title aside) sounds like nothing more complicated than the kind of bouncy, happy tune you could probably get away with playing in a kindergarten class. It's a good fit for Matmos, surprisingly. As they expand the palette they establish on "Rainbow Flag" over the next three brief, electro-poppy songs Supreme Balloon gets deeper, groovier and more complex and starts feeling like the duo's most complete success yet. Even when the consonances of the prior tracks get turned sideways on "Exciter Lamp", they still find space to toss in a brief, cheeky reading of "O Canada" to go along with the Norman McLaren-themed video.
After these brief but compelling showcases of Matmos' prowess as tunesmiths, of a sort, there's a buzzy reading of Francois Couperin's "Les Folies Francaises" that sounds like something that would play over the videos they used to play in my high school science classes (you know, the ones dating back to the '70s with awesomely blocky, primary-coloured animations of circuits and atoms and the like?) that provides a perfect, refreshing break in the album. But then we come to the one thing on Supreme Balloon that can be considered in any way close to a misstep. The 24-minute "Supreme Balloon" isn't in itself bad. The synthesized tablas underpin the composition's rather epic scope as it moves through phase after phase, reaching new heights of psychedelic sweep and Tangerine Dream-esque mastery of telling but minute tonal shifts.
Sounds pretty good, right? And it is, great even. Listening to "Supreme Balloon" or the rest of the record (including the brief, pastoral closer "Cloudhopper") in isolation reveals two totally different but equally wonderful new vistas for Matmos, but no matter how many times I listen to the record they just won't gel for me. Call me greedy, but I want more bite-sized nuggets of the Boards of Canada-gone-pop aesthetic of the six shorter songs here to fill the program out, and "Supreme Balloon" itself practically demands another side long counterpart.
I am generally for shorter albums, so it's to Daniels and Schmidt's credit that I actually wish the brief (47-minute) Supreme Balloon was a double album. Maybe I'm just too set on appreciating the two types of track here separately (although I've never had similar problems with, say, Bowie's Low and "Heroes", two equally bifurcated efforts), but as appreciative as I am of the wonders contained here I'm not sure how often I'll be experiencing both as sequenced. They're more steak and sushi than peanut butter and chocolate.