The politics of electronic music are such that the method and medium often overshadow the music being created. On one hand, there are turntable pranksters like Jason Forrest and Girl Talk, turning high-speed mashups of familiar samples into anarchic high art. And on the other, there come visionaries such as Matthew Herbert, who has a manifesto posted on his website, which disallows the use of any artist’s previously recorded material in his compositions. In all of these cases, the art is of greater worth than the channel through which the artist made it, but regardless, it is the method that tends to be the defining quality.
Matmos is one such duo whose methods have made them infamous, with concepts ranging from The Civil War‘s combination of English and American Civil War sounds to A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure‘s melodies built from medical devices. And throughout their career, the sampling of unlikely sources as turning Bible pages and human hair have built the foundation of their sound. With non-musical sources playing such an integral role, however, imagination ultimately takes over, and it’s that refusal to accept limitations that has consistently made Matmos one of the most creative and evolutionary forces in electronic music.
To hear that Matmos used only synthesizers on new album Supreme Balloon, then, is pretty surprising. There is little subtext to the album, no tributes to historically significant gay or lesbian figures as on The Rose Has Teeth In the Mouth of the Beast, no drumming on skulls or rat cages, just a playful and buoyant electronic album that looks as much to electronica’s innovators as it is another thrilling step for one of the genre’s most forward-thinking duos.
Given that Matmos’ most thematically highbrow and concept-driven works have yielded no less than ecstatic results, it should come as little surprise that Supreme Balloon is, likewise, as much fun as two art-minded Moog jockey could possibly dream to conjure. Aided by the likes of Keith Fullerton Whitman and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Marshall Allen, Drew Daniel and Martin C. Schmidt inflate this dirigible with Jean-Jacques Perry’s playful analog synth lounge, Tangerine Dream’s atmospheric dream-drones, Terry Riley’s minimalist avant garde and Cluster’s dense electro-Krautrock, and as expected, the combination is brilliant.
The first half of the album comprises five shorter tracks, each less than four minutes long, all of them bristling with energy and analog warmth. First track “Rainbow Flag” pulses and gallops along a playful bossa nova, over which old-school computer sounds and synthesized horns create a symphony of mischief. “Polychords” throbs with a straightforward beat and a sparse organ drone, combining house music with the madcap laughter of Syd Barrett. “Mister Mouth” bleeps and blurps like computerized wack-a-mole, and I mean that in a completely complimentary way, while “Exciter Lamp” earns a high score for its video game chip symphony.
The album’s second half is but two tracks, the vast majority of it taken up by the 24-minute title track, a billowing, slowly building epic piece that most accurately justifies the Tangerine Dream comparison. It’s an awe-inspiring and beautiful thing, though the shorter “Cloudhopper” that follows is likewise inspired, dreamlike and ethereal, like a warm blanket of sound to put the album to bed.
With no more than some trusty old school synthesizers, Matmos has succeeded in making a joyous and colorful electronic album that sounds thoroughly modern while giving more than a tip of its hat to pioneers in the field. Given that Supreme Balloon sets seemingly more limitations on Daniel and Schmidt than prior efforts, it’s amazing just how limitless their ideas ultimately are.
Mouse on Mars – Autoditacker
Cluster – Zuckerzeit
Terry Riley – A Rainbow in Curved Air
Video: “Exciter Lamp”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.