The Civil War
hough I definitely consider myself a Matmos fan, I do so having never really gotten into the group’s recorded work. Weird, but I love their live shows and think their off-the-wall ideas and sounds sources are rather amazing. That said, their great concepts seemed, in the past, to get lost in attempts to make their records more streamlined and acceptable. Contrasted with live recordings (the fierce Drug Opera with Lesser or the quirky Wide Open Spaces with People Like Us and Wobbly), the studio albums just lack a serious spark. They are all good, but none has been nearly as mindblowing as the concept behind it. Nonetheless my hopes were high for The Civil War. I got my first peek a year and a half ago when friend and fellow Midwesterner Keenan Lawler played me the track he’d recorded with the duo for the record. Keenan, with his resonator guitar, playing inside a Kentucky drainage pipe; Matmos processing it and filling out the sound. It was awesome and I was hooked. Though I’m not sure if it’s entirely the same version I’d heard - I’d venture that it’s not - the track ultimately became “The Struggle Against Unreality Reigns,” one of the calmer, less-processed highlights of the new album.
So with over a year of anticipation, the first seconds of “Regicide” fly out of my speaker sounding more like the renaissance referencing noise-folk band Amps for Christ than Bjork’s hired hands. My mind flashes to the movie Willow, to The Lord of the Rings and Camelot. The Round Table has a pile of very modern electronic gadgetry stacked on it. The press release had stated the album would be “the 2003 version of the 1990 version of the 1968 version of the 1860 version of the 1590s,” and, though I hate to quote them, it’s really the best possible way to describe the album. The album is so schizophrenic in its time-travelling that eventually all points are given equal time and it becomes thoroughly cohesive. This is the ultimate mash-up album: 500 years of music history consolidated into 45 minutes.
The two “epics” clocking in at around nine minutes each are perfect metaphors for Matmos’ new style. They each start off with everything on the table - synths wandering in every direction, enormous forefront drums, bizarre orchestration, and a small hard drive’s worth of cut-up samples - then transform into melodic electronic songs and are eventually narrowed down to singular, isolated sounds. That a pedal steel and electric guitar are the sole remains of the near-incoherence at the beginning of “Reconstruction” is a testament to the ultimate truth that mild insanity can be channeled and focused into melodic, accessible music as well as spastic glitch.
The group hasn’t gone totally soft though. There’s more than enough of said glitch to go around. The most tweaked and twisted of them all is undoubtedly the duo’s rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Mixing a recording of a real marching band with their own instrumentation, some knob-twisting, and the sounds of more than a few participants in their Harvard workshop, the song comes across simultaneously as both an ironic statement on the current state of the US and an undeniably happy and upbeat work. The track is so over the top in its Super Nintendo Sousa schtick that it’s nearly impossible to resist. It should also be noted that the track features some of the finest recorded tuba this side of Pet Sounds.
If nothing else, Matmos are very good to their friends. Only one track sees the group as an actual duo - and despite their explanation, it comes off as little more than a beat-oriented Runzelstirn and Gurgelstock piece - and one other (that opener “Regicide”) sees them with merely the old stand-by Lesser. Also dropping in for appearances are artists ranging from Keith Fullerton Whitman and Blevin Blechtum to David Grubbs and members of the Radar Bros. The most important contributions, however, seem to come from Mark Lightcap. Though I never heard his former band Acetone, I’m very intrigued after hearing his work all over The Civil War. He rounds out a perfect two-thirds of the disc’s tracks and it appears as though he had quite a hand in things.
While Matmos make excellent conceptual composers (and they are certainly getting more recognition than most), they’re even better at conducting (directing, editing, whatever it is they do) than performing themselves. Perhaps it’s the spirit of collaboration that makes these works shine or maybe they just draw enormous amounts of inspiration from the peers. Whatever the case may be, this unreal ensemble has come together under (what I imagine to be) the very tedious, nitpicking eye of the duo and made easily the finest Matmos record to date. A vision that is both the direct product of Daniels and Schmidt’s ever-growing imaginations and also that of the many other artists involved. Perhaps Matmos should roll with the whole army more often.
Reviewed by: Mike Shiflet
Reviewed on: 2003-09-29