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Matmos - The Civil War

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Artist: Matmos

Album: The Civil War

Label: Matador

Review date: Sep. 30, 2003

During The Civil War, the couple who play Matmos admit that they tend to be Mat/Mos; like any pair, a little bit blue and gray. Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt are on their fifth record, and there's sure to be some artistic tension by now, civil union or not. But The Civil War exudes the kind of confidence that can only come from being able to cope with such tension. It is a challenging and humorous album that works like a society brave and wise enough to allow dissent. United it stands.

Matmos occupy an exalted place in the indie-rock universe right now, as one of a conspicuously small number of electronic acts to have recorded a series of excellent albums. Their continuing collaboration with Bjork has deeply solidified that respect. (They produced her album Vespertine, and now perform as part of her touring band.) Matmos' music speaks less to the dance floor than to the art gallery, applying creative procedures to quirky and vaguely poignant themes in ways that facilitate comprehension from afar. You needn't ever see Matmos live, or be part of any scene, to find the notion of making electronic music from a rabbit pelt funny. (Which they do, on the song “Pelt and Holler”). Their music can be read like a text. And they could probably give a wicked lecture, etc.

The Civil War fuses archaic instrumentation and the general percussive and melodic marks of American military music with digital static, post-Aphex Twin trickery, and complex sequencing. Daniel and Schmidt start with the signs of marching music – like the sharp clap of sticks against toms, theatrical tunes played on woodwind instruments, or broadcasting bagpipes – and augment them with the inexhaustible ephemera of the modern studio. In practice, what you hear is symmetrical military music blended skillfully with oddball rhythm and sound. At certain moments, numerous moments, the mixture oversteps the boundaries of novelty and sucks you in.

“Reconstruction”, the first of two consecutive epics, steps over the slain bodies of its first four battle-enthused minutes to engage a less theoretically patriotic, more literally introspective side. The partition between electronics and quintessential folk instruments blurs ever so subtly until it feels as though the two, though conventionally divided, belong together. Perhaps only the Amps for Christ have ever made the same statement so well. "Reconstruction" ends as a piece of repetitive Americana, thoroughly at ease with itself.

"Y.T.T.E. (yield to total elation)” follows, striking a brighter note at first, and largely forsakes its predecessor's basis in antiquity. Initially, it could be the introduction to a Sea and Cake song. But total elation turns out to be more of an unmediated series of exercises than a fine-tuned battleplan. Despite its title, it eventually grows to evoke the mourning dolor of Blind Willie Johnson, thoroughly disconsolate, perhaps in nascent dialogue with death. A raucous rendition of Sousa's “The Stars and Stripes Forever” follows shortly thereafter, sounding as though the “players” were a little drunk. What can I say, we live in a nation of non-sequiturs.

At certain moments, numerous moments, the mixture also recedes into a digital reality. The aforementioned "Pelt and Holler" can only, if the liner notes are to be believed, be an exercise in the tradition of Matmos' last record, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, a game played with the sounds of nearly silent things; rabbit pelts now, human insides then. The idea may be misplaced on The Civil War, whose concept depends more on the end than on the means of experimentation. By now, though, the album has already been what it is, an internally conflicted but nevertheless stable novelty approached with respect and characterized by intense curiosity, so the interruption is forgotten.

By Ben Tausig

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