Matmos: The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast
To be young, gifted, and gay.
For most people, Matmos have been better known as the two dudes seen inventively creating beats for Bjork's live shows. But for those with their ears a little further underground, Matmos have been taking found sound to a whole other level for over a decade now. Manipulating, chopping, stretching, and reinventing the sounds of everything from human hair to balloons, the duo have crafted a unique niche within the electronic music world. For most of their career, the acclaim brought upon their work has focused largely on the methods used to create the music or the overriding concept behind it. The Civil War warped traditional instruments into Matmos' take on the music that fueled the titular American and British feuds. On the other side of the spectrum, the recordings of a captured rat provided fodder for Rat Relocation Program, while most famously the band used their recordings of plastic surgery to construct the widely celebrated A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure.
Throughout all of these endeavors, the method of execution has remained the focal point of criticism. Unfortunately, this has inadvertently created a band whose identity merely extends to their whacked out experiments, while the music, though wonderfully performed, is also coldly and clinically distant. The band's technique is so good that they have alienated their own -- as their live shows attest -- vibrant personalities from seeping into the music. Until now. The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast is both Matmos's most ambitious, most personal, and by extension, best record to date.
The usual array of esoteric sound sources is certainly present here. Machetes, scissors, semen, burning flesh, goose calls, marbles, keys, a hair clipper -- these just a few of the staggering number of unique samples the band incorporates in their songs this time around. However, while past albums kept a singular sonic focus, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast presents a variety of genres each suited to the song's subject, running the gamut from self-described "power electronics" to "booty bass". While Matmos have always been appreciated by a certain strain of electronic music fans, the group opens the disc with three of their least engaging and most generic offerings to date. It's this opening third that prevents the disc from reaching into end-of-the-year list gushing. "Roses and Teeth for Ludwig Wiggentstein" and "Tract for Valerie Solanas" attempt to reconfigure the spoken-word-over-electronic-music style with dismal results. The readings aren't particularly passionate, while the musical backing is both strident and forgettable. But perhaps worse is the exceedingly boring "mutant disco" of "Steam and Sequins For Larry Levan". Bizarre for it ordinariness, Matmos deliver a straight disco track that is pretty much a take or leave it affair.
Luckily, the rest of the disc is positively inspired and wonderfully varied. "Semen Song for James Bidgood", easily the disc's best track, is also one of the most beautiful Matmos compositions to date. Anchored by some beautiful piano work by Matthew Fuerst, Matmos enlist (and tweak) Antony's lovely voice and Zeena Parkins's delicate harp in wonderful swirls around the song's center. Strings by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble further accent the song's fragile beauty, creating a track as gorgeous as it is mournful. On the other side of the coin is the appropriately pulsing head rush of "Germs Burn for Darby Crash". There is no vulnerability here, just fevered, raw beats closely mirroring the Germs' own frenzied abandon, and it's great fun. And falling somewhere between the two is "Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith". While much will be made about the approach -- using the movement of live snails to adjust the laser on a light sensitive theremin -- the song itself is fantastic. It's a big, bombastic, widescreen faux-noir score, with all the requisite and fantastic brassy horns and dramatic sweeps. Somewhere, there's a lost Orson Welles film that needs this tune for a soundtrack.
It's rare that a band broadens their musical scope while offering a more intimate glimpse into their influences in one fell swoop, but Matmos do that here. It's exciting to see them bravely tackling ten different styles and, for the most part, turning them on their heads in a way only they can. But most enriching is the band's look into the very people that helped form their artistic selves. We achieve a greater understanding of how and why the duo approach their samplers and microphones in the exceptional way they do. And we appreciate their music all the more for it.