Return to Archive

, ,

A plunderphonic trawl through the Smithsonian Folkways archives with Drew Daniel and MC Schmidt proves a disquieting experience for Skye Butchard

With Folkways Records, founder Moses Asch aimed to document everything. From 1948 onwards, this rich catalogue preserved otherwise overlooked folk traditions, alongside spoken word and scientific oddities. Just as important are the non-musical releases, which mark some of the first field recordings. Curious documentarians made LPs out of the sounds of North American tree frogs, insects, birds, junkyards, babbling infants, cable cars and carnivals. Now, the 2,168 musical and non-musical records are preserved by the Smithsonian. Who better to raid this material than Matmos?

The 14th studio album by Drew Daniel and his husband M. C. Schmidt is typically surreal and high-concept, sourced entirely out of this non-musical material to celebrate Smithsonian Folkways’ 75th anniversary. After sampling washing machine cycles, plastic surgery and just plastic, the range of audio sources on Return to Archive feels overwhelming in scope. A world of sound is up for grabs.

What grounds it is a central question: “Music, or noise?”. This phrase, taken from a disembodied narrator of 1958’s The Science of Sound, is looped until its rhythms feel intentional. Audio pops and screeches are wrestled into a groove, some sounds twisted beyond recognition. Matmos use the noises of the past to wink at their own catalogue. Return to Archive is fuelled by the tension between music and noise, past and present, feeling and intellectualising.

Contorting these noises into something resembling dance music is as playful as you’d hope. ‘Mud-Dauber Wasp’ turns the aggressive buzz of a wasp’s wings into a killer atonal synth jam of sorts – just without the synth. Whirring machines and natural sounds are blurred together. ‘Why?’ embraces the limitations of these original recordings, turning erosion into percussive details, while goofy bird calls come in and out of focus.

Sometimes, Matmos reveal the context of the source material, like on ‘Injection Basic Sound’ where the sampled narrator tells us we’ve been hearing air injected into an oesophagus. But in the record’s most destabilising moments, they leave the source a mystery. On the thirteen-minute title track, metallic clanks and engine noise play out in unsettled stretches until they become deadened drones. Eventually, drones are replaced by insects hunting for scraps and harsh feedback.

Asch’s mission statement to document everything was bold in 1948, but today, humans are doing it by accident. 30,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube hourly. 22 million tracks are uploaded to Spotify yearly. The endless scrawl of data grows, some of it not heard outside of the creators.

Preserving these old sounds on record gave them legitimacy in their time. Matmos mythologise and deconstruct them, drawing attention to the way media is discarded onto the pile in the present. With Spotify reportedly limiting the revenue given to ambient noise creators, the perceived value of field recordings is to be degraded even further.

Return to Archive is a funny and unsettling trip through the past, to a time before we felt like we’d heard everything. But its greatest power is in forcing us to question what we should archive, given that any noise can capture the world it came from.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today