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Matmos - Live, High and Dirty

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Artist: Matmos

Album: Live, High and Dirty

Label: Vague Terrain

Review date: Apr. 9, 2002

Honestly, most live electronic music doesn’t do anything for me. Sure, there’s the hilarity of Cex’s “number one entertainer” routine, or the veritable block rockin’ that Plaid dishes out, but the fact still remains the same – the effect of a live electronic performance could be just easily recreated in your living room with a bitchin’ stereo and some reasonably trippy visual effects (okay, Cex’s gold fronts notwithstanding). You have to wonder how good some producers are at solitaire if they’re just playing prerecorded stuff directly from a DAT or a hard drive. Fortunately, San Franciscans Matmos know not only how to do the whole live electronic thing, but they know how to do it right. Instead of focusing on rehashes of material from their four studio albums, the duo of Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt use their stage time to improv new ideas. Whereas other performers are busy trying to repeat tracks, Matmos are busy trying to reconstruct them. Of course this can have mixed results, as the band veers from all out noise to sweetly fucked beats. But at the very same time their willingness to try and perform as live as possible makes their shows a must see. That being said, their new disc, High, Live and Dirty, released on their own Vague Terrain label and featuring one J. Lesser on a good number of the tracks, is not your standard concert memento.

For many, Matmos and Lesser will be known as Bjork’s backing band, as the trio accompanied her as she trekked across the globe in support of her latest disc. And indeed for some, Matmos may be known as the kitschy group who released an album constructed of surgical samples last year. Fair play all around, but each have a myriad of releases to their own credit and are too good of a group of musicians and performers to simply be relegated to the position of perennial sidemen. Furthermore, based purely on recording dates alone only one of the tracks could have been recorded on that recent world tour. Instead, the eleven untitled live performances from this disc are mostly culled from a variety of college radio and other live performances. The results are a mixed bag, but quite an excellent one to say the least. The first track features Schmidt and Martin Sussman improvising an eerie piece based on sounds from a five gallon bucket of oatmeal and an ethereal, foreboding electric guitar sound. Jay Lesser steps in on the second track, adding layers of slowly oscillating noise to the mix before cut up percussion pieces interject. The third track is an early staggering highlight as it builds directly from the seeming chaos of the prior track before unexpectedly breaking into a random string sample, followed quickly by bits and pieces of different songs. These three tracks were all taken from the same sessions at KZSU in Stanford, and are amazing examples of how Matmos and company are able to improvise. The music is chaotic and disjointed at times, but it moves forward without ever being overindulgent or boring.

Reduced to a duo by track four, Daniel and Schmidt spend the approximate six minutes of this track “covering” a tune by the Rachel’s. Even though it sounds like the bastard child of a Rachel’s song, it still manages to retain the organic feel of the instruments used by that same band. Track five is even stranger, with the duo playing off various animals calls and samples to create an otherworldly piece of improv that at times sounds like hell breaking loose in a zoo, or at the very least free jazz time in the primate house. Track six is more beat oriented, but still largely relies on similar animal calls to create an odd effect. Seven is taken from a live performance on WNYU. This one has elements of hip hop tracks in it, but at the same time sounds almost like the DJ couldn’t figure out what speed to play the record at, all the while coupled with mass amounts of electronic trickery. All of the tracks on this record are strong, but the group saves the best for last. The album finally concludes with a staggering ten-minute piece recorded in Oakland last year. This track features the sounds of helium tanks and slowly deflating balloons building and playing off each other throughout the duration of the track, while the group manically builds a wall of sound fueled by uneasy beats.

This is heady material. For those familiar only with the Matmos heard previously in recorded form, much of this material may be a difficult listen as it varies in accessability, but steadily escalates in strangeness. The odds are, though, that if you dig a group already that samples liposuctions and whoopee cushions, hearing them give their trademark sound a twist with helium balloons won’t be too much of a shock. This is supposedly a limited edition release, so if you see it in a store snap it up quickly, or even better still, check out Matmos live the next time they pass through town. You might leave wondering how they conjure up such a plethora of odd sounds, but you won’t be disappointed.

By Michael Crumsho

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