Matmos are no strangers to concept albums. Its what they do. Since their self-titled 1998 debut, they’ve become domestic housewifes in creating a whole album, Quasi Objects (1998), out of domestic appliances, squatted hospitals to record an album of sounds obtained from medical procedures, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure (2001) and most recently for Civil War (2003) scoured the archives to administer an album documenting that very title, specifically the 17th Century British Civil War and the North and South American Civil Wars. It puts Matmos, made up of Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt in the ‘sound artist’ bracket and their latest offering The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of A Beast sees them move even closer to that sound artist context with an album made up if ten biographical portraits of different heroes within the Matmos spectrum.
Now, these are not the type of heroes most of us exalt — I’m guessing not many of us have had a poster of Ludwig Wittgenstein on our walls or a Valerie Solanas teddy — nor is this a Friday night or Sunday morning record for that matter. There may well be no pitch to this record, simply an offering of sound collages inspired by people Matmos admire, yet the individuals feted and the method Matmos partake in offering the worship of them — sampling highly referential and specific samples such as vacuum cleaners and typewriters in the case of William Burroughs — to create meaning, places this record at times closer to a sound installation art gallery rather than the lounge or someone’s bedroom hi-fi. Like with all sound and video installations, for some people things become a lot clearer once we’ve read the artist’s blurb on the side of the wall or the document that accompanies the piece, similarly for The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of A Beast. For example, well done if you’ve actually heard of Patricia Highsmith, but further points awarded if you knew that her favourite animals were snails thus automatically being able to acquaint yourself with the inference behind the sampling of snails for Highsmith’s particular sound collage. Irreverent of the exclusive artistic world these sound portraits point towards, the question here is whether we require the research and background knowledge behind each individual to appreciate each individual song and does such painstaking sound sampling actually increase the magnitude and depth of each portrait?
The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of A Beast sees them move even closer to a sound artist context.
Being the geeks we are at Zap, we thought we’d experiment ourselves. So, a few of us in a coded tribute to Kurt Cobain, dressed up in big stripy woolly jumpers, played grunge and did skag for a whole week. Fuck. After listening to the tapes, we were downcast — we realised we sounded more like the Lemonheads. So we go back to Matmos. The immediate impression of the record is of sonic surgical precision. Schmidt and Daniel seem capable of carving and moulding sounds out of anything — the more obtuse the better. Coupled with this great ear for sounds, is an acute ability for sequencing that sees Matmos ripping and placing sounds in and out of their usual context, simultaneously questioning how context affects sound — which could in fact reflect the wider object of this record as a whole. “Public Sex for Boyd Macdonald” is an example of the subtle power of Matmos’s sequencing as we go from funky GrandmasterFlash base and spacey guitar riffs which melt into a dramatic sci-fi piece through the use of synth stabs before crumbling into the sounds of a dusty VHS tape and porn signature piano — all in the blink of an eyelid. These are not however mash-ups, working more as sound collages or film-score montages.
“Solo Buttons For Joe Meek” is more reminiscent of the latter. A country and western surf guitar carries us out and this interspersed with drums, lasers and noir saxophone before fervent dynamics of the surf guitar returns. Perhaps it’s no co-incidence that the track has a Pulp Fiction feel to it and consequently the semantics of a narrative within a narrative that the film carries with it.
The majority of these songs are able to both stand up away from their conceptual contexts and add further intrigue and alarm through the specific inference of some of the unique samples used.
Apart from the tracks that adhere to distinctly biographical and sound-collage like structures, there are some that retain musical qualities more akin to your average dance track and are ultimately at times quite funky. The ghostly voice samples, clipped hand-claps and New York disco of “Steam and Sequins for Larry Levan” is one such track and really wouldn’t sound out of place on an Arthur Russell compilation. “Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith” is all noir and French horns, with glittering piano, aided and abetted by a playful double bass groove that winks at the conflicting laser sounds that eventually envelope the record.
There are a few strays here, “Rag for William Boroughs” is overly long and despite a list of unique samples doesn’t do enough, whilst “Tract for Valerie Solanas” sounds too close to a Nathan Barley record despite using a real life vagina. These letdowns aside, returning to one of the original questions it would seem that the majority of these songs are able to both stand up away from their conceptual contexts and add further intrigue and alarm through the specific inference of some of the unique samples used. Finding out that snails intercepting various beams of light, thus altering the pitch of a light sensitive theremin, were used to create the haunting laser sounds at the end of “Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith”, was just friggin cool. With artistic ideals/pretensions put to the back of the mind, this is a record that works.