The Lead Review: Leo Chadburn On Matmos' Ultimate Care II
, February 25th, 2016 09:12
With Matmos' latest effort – a record constructed entirely from washing machine noises –released on Thrill Jockey last week, Leo Chadburn examines its explorations of sonic domesticity
There's a 1990 short film, of the kind that Channel 4 used to have the creative audacity to air late at night, called The Voice-Over Queen, starring avant-garde vocalist Joan La Barbara as a frustrated Shakespearean actor with a spectacular talent for imitating household appliances. After being rebuffed by casting agents ("out, damned spot… stick to self-cleaning ovens!"), in the final scene she delivers her Hamlet soliloquy to a room crammed with gadgets, which enthusiastically join in and clank a round of applause.
I was reminded of it, listening to the new Matmos album, not just because it concerns a machine 'come to life', or because it engages with the sexual politics of domesticity, but because it exemplifies a particular marriage of the banal and the intellectual. It's a signifier of a strand of queer sensibility, going beyond camp into a kind of 'hard kitsch'.
Matmos have chosen their own washing machine as their kitsch object: the Whirlpool Ultimate Care II that lends the album its name. The elevator pitch is ultimate simplicity: every sound you hear is sampled from that one appliance. Why washing machine? The kitchen oven is perhaps too limited a sound source - it doesn't have the resonant clang of the washing machine, its bass throb, its ecstatic whirr, the guttural physicality of its drain. The oven is a thing you can 'get creative with' in itself; the washing machine is purely the focus of a chore; women have been 'chained' to it by our patriarchal culture.
Most importantly though, I think Matmos' sly humour means they've enjoyed (literally) doing their dirty laundry in public. They're rare, being an artistic duo (M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel) who successfully share a personal and domestic life as well as a practice. Ultimate Care II could be read as an oblique self-portrait. What, after all, do couples who've shared a life for twenty years end up having to organise? It's more likely to be "who's putting on a load?" than "who's loading up the sampler?"
There are a handful of collaborators on this record, such as Dan Deacon and Jason Willett (from Maryland art-punks Half Japanese), drafted in to provide additional MIDI-programming and to 'play' the machine (it is not just recorded in operation, but used as a percussion instrument too). But mainly the album reads as two men, at home, experimenting with the machine in their Baltimore basement. (As a digression, the idea of Baltimore basement experiments brings to mind that king of hard kitsch, the "Pope of Trash", John Waters.)
Their entire career has been concerned with finding these unusual sound sources, right back to their eponymous 1997 album, which infamously included recordings of a crayfish's nerve activity, through field recordings of cosmetic surgery (on A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure in 2001), a cow's uterus, Heidelberg printing press, semen, snails, etc. (on The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of The Beast in 2006) and so on and so on. In an interview with Artforum earlier this month, they said they'd "much rather hear a bowl of chocolate pudding than an 808 kick drum". It's a good point. Electronic music opens the composer to any timbre imaginable, or unimaginable. Why limit yourself?
There's frequently been a fetish quality to their work, sonically, such as the immensely visceral sound of their improvisation with a barrel of porridge on 2002's Matmos Live With J Lesser. It's little wonder that they've started to be cited as antecedents to more recent 'queer' electronic musicians, such as Arca, whose music morphs and twists in and out of shape. The new aspect on Ultimate Care II is that the microscopic attention to a single sound source has given them a creative and structural rigour. It's immensely satisfying.
Matmos also have a background in academia (Daniel's day job is still as a professor of early English literature) and they have an academic awareness of the precedents of this record. Some very early examples of classic musique concrète utilise just one sound source, such as Xenakis' 1958 piece Concret PH, which is constructed solely from recordings of burning charcoal. You can hear Matmos' nods to these forebears in the way they process and re-process a sound, or deploy the archetypical concrète gesture of a single timbre opening into a chasm of reverb. This is body music too, though. The history of disco, house and hi-NRG runs in its soapy pipes, the music of people liberating themselves from societal oppression and the launderette.
The album unfolds in one, more-or-less continuous segue, but falls neatly into four sections like an electro-prog linen symphony or one psychedelic wash cycle. A turn of the dial at the opening lets forth a great torrent of rushing water in glistening detail (all of the samples here are beautifully recorded). This gives way to a swinging beat of the (washing machine) drum, curiously jazzy, as if a big band horn section were about to burst in.
After around ten minutes, the sounds of the machine have mutated into a synthetic bell and mbira texture, in ping-pong delay, leading to a central section, a midnight dark wash where muffled polyrhythmic drums support a neon atonal line. Its third movement is a brittle scherzo with freakish party horns, evolving into a glassy melody, before the return of the damp rinse shuffle.
Its final section could pass for a furious gamelan workout, with echoes of John Cage's First Construction In Metal, all clangourous percussion and prepared piano. This is a malevolent machine. Entering its spin cycle, it starts to pound away like the hardest techno, but undercut with something weirder, flashier, fleshier; your utility room has become a sex club. How else could it end but with a click of a switch? Job complete, your laundry is done.
This album is a triple threat: it expands the palette of sounds normally at the disposal of the electronic musician; it teases with questions about the meaning and politics of objects; and it is suffused with an expert dance floor aesthetic. In other hands this would have been a dry, conceptual conceit, but this is 50/50 head and heart. Matmos remain vital, may they continue to launder, may they never wash separately.