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Welcome To The Plastisphere – Celebrate Matmos's Plastic Anniversary
Robert Barry , March 7th, 2019 09:59

Matmos's Plastic Anniversary – Drew Daniel and MC Schmidt's 25th, commercial plastic's 150th – is a triumphant paean to the new flesh, the sound of the earth becoming artificial

In the 150 years since John Wesley Hyatt patented celluloid, the first commercially viable, mass-produceable thermoplastic, the spread of artificial polymers and malleable artificial compounds throughout the earth is approaching catastrophic levels. A 2015 study in the journal Science put the annual toll on the world’s oceans at somewhere between 1.1 and 8.8 million metric tons. Picture, for a moment, eight million Toyota Prius’s worth of takeaway containers, mineral water bottles, broken electrical appliances, vehicle fuel tanks, crisp packets, playground fixtures, and faux-wood planks. In the sea. Every year. Then remember that all of that shit will live at least five times longer than you will. By 2050, there may be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Only about nine percent of that plastic waste gets recycled. But Matmos, here, are doing their bit, re-using PVC panflutes, silicone breast implants, riot shields, nurdles, and toilet brushes to produce eleven tracks of stretchy, bouncy, and utterly synthetic music. Plastic Anniversary, the Baltimore duo’s eleventh album to date, squeaks and pops and creaks and slaps, like one of those plastic slapper hand things. Hard. In your face. It is a record at once dark and joyous, fun and foreboding, gleeful and eerily apocalyptic. Curiously, it may also be the group’s most ‘organic’ record to date, an album whose every beat and every blip seems to question our sense of the real and the fake, the human and the alien.

Back in 1869, Hyatt had been trying to find a cheap replacement for the ivory used in billiard balls, and it is with the collision of celluloid spheres on green baize that the record’s third track ‘Interior With Billiard Balls & Synthetic Fat’ opens. But while MC Schmidt, Drew Daniel and guest Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly) play with their balls, slowly something stranger bubbles up, squelching and quaking. From one of the very first commercial plastics to one of the most recent, while the initially seemingly random impacts on a snooker table get sequenced into a taut post-rave rhythm machine, this somewhat Richard D. James Album-era Aphex Twin-ish track gets its counterpoint from a form of synthetic flesh created in 2015 by SynDaver labs. The Tampa, Florida company have crafted fake cadavers capable of blinking, pumping blood, and changing body temperature. Thanks to Matmos, they can now sing too, warbling off-colour lullabies from deep in the uncanny valley.

For some years now there has seemed to be a kind of back-and-forth contest between Matmos and the UK’s Matthew Herbert over who can produce the most abstrusely conceptual piece of dancefloor-friendly musique concrète. One will make a record entirely from sounds captured during surgical procedures, the other from an entire food chain. Next we get an album generated from parapsychology experiments, from a single pig, from a washing machine, from a fighter plane over Libya… In each case, the record is both made possible by – and its intent somewhat undermined by – the quasi-infinite malleability afforded to sound by digital technology. After all, if you can make anything sound like anything, then the only thing to make your audience aware of the carefully-thought-out programme is the sleeve notes. It becomes the equivalent of a work of art that remains impenetrable without the wall text in the gallery.

Plastic Anniversary, however, is different. The plasticity of sound is its subject and the ubiquity of plastic is its content. There are in fact a great many ‘real’, ‘acoustic’ sounds on this record – we hear trumpets, drums, flutes, ocarinas, a bass, and a trombone. In a neat dig at the vinyl purists, album opener ‘Breaking Bread’ – a playful ditty reminiscent of David Cain’s radio sig tunes for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – is even sequenced entirely from sounds of snapping LPs and 7”s. There is plenty of air and swing and human physicality expended, beyond the twitching of a mouse pointer on a digital audio workstation. Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier brings a propulsive, dynamic sense of rhythm to several tracks (played on Pelican cases, plastic pots, and water bottles). The entire drumline of Whitefish High School are beating in time, samba band-style, on penultimate track ‘Collapse of the Fourth Kingdom’. And yet it all remains – literally – plastic, the very byword for the fake and the insincere. Everything now may be synthesized and mass-produced – even our own flesh. Welcome to the Plastisphere. This is the sound of the earth becoming artificial.