The duo’s recordings based on the works of the Polish polymath work best as tributes both to him and other electronic music pioneers of the mid-20th century
Baltimore duo Matmos have been creating music from unlikely sources for 25 years now. Their discography features tracks built from recordings as unlikely as a liposuction procedure, Bible pages turning, the neural activity of a crayfish, and Adrian Chiles being slapped on the britches with a Caramac… and although we made one of those up, the fact that it still sounds quite plausible tells you a lot.
New album Regards is a little different, though, the Instytut Adama Mickiewicza having invited Matmos to create recordings based on the works of Polish polymath, educator, and member of the radical Cracow Group, Bogusław Schaeffer – as Polish speakers will no doubt have deduced from the album’s subtitle. The track titles are likewise duolingual, with such as Anti-Antiphon (Absolute Decomposition)/ Anty-Antyfona (Dekonstrukcja Na Całego) offering the same information in English and Polish; but some other titles are made from anagrams of Schaeffer’s name, resulting in a pair of completely different meanings.
This subtle code-shifting sums up the nature of the album: it’s not a straightforward remix project, but neither does it treat the source material in so radical a fashion as Matmos’ most famous work (you’d be hard pressed to extrapolate the grisly recordings underpinning the jolly-face glitchtronica of their most celebrated album, A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure) and it also adds fresh elements from instrumentalists including Irish harpist Úna Monaghan and Max Eilbacher of Horse Lords. It is perhaps best to see Regards as a tribute to the exploratory work of Schaeffer and other electronic music pioneers of the mid-20th century.
The mysterious nature of the album’s genesis, however, does mean that any creative descriptions of the sounds might inadvertently turn out to be accurate. On Few, Far Chaos Bugles/ Uff…Bosch Ara Wałęsę, for example, a little motif recalling the melancholic pitched honks of Galleons Of Stone by The Art Of Noise could have been sourced from a vintage synthesiser piece, a treated French horn, or a chair being dragged across the room, as evident in a hundred YouTube covers of Aphex Twin’s Alberto Balsalm.
Resemblage/ Parasamblaż, on the other hand, boasts fascinating sounds that bring to mind furious fly-swatting on the set of STOMP, and the bubbling test tubes heard in the Ealing classic The Man In The White Suit. It also features some manically sliced and layered recordings of small bells – carillon up the Khyber, anyone? – which are coupled with hammered dulcimer to create the gorgeous ghost of a folk melody, coming off like a highly abstract remix of Orbital’s techno-exotica classic The Box. In fact, there are points at which Regards veers unusually close to conventional dance music, Cobra Wages Shuffle/ Off! Schable w Gurę! toying with the sort of jolly mambo samples beloved of mid-’90s producers, and some warm dubby soundscapes elsewhere calling to mind The Orb circa career apex Orbus Tarrarum.
True to past Matmos form, for every piece of approachably bouncy electronica, there is more austere and disorienting fare. Flashcube Fog Wares/ Głucha Affera Słów nods towards tape effects and short splice techniques that simultaneously recall the compositions of Milton Babbitt and Pierre Schaeffer – no relation – ending with what sounds like a piccolo pulled through a Sapphire & Steel warphole, and the interplay between mournful harp and spectral voices gives If All Things Were Turned to Smoke/ Gdyby Wszystko Atało Się Dymem a whiff of Stockhausen.
Almost inevitably, there are times when the maximalist editing approach becomes wearing, and the soundfield on Tonight There Is Something Special About The Moon/ Jaki Księżyc Dziś Wieczór… is just too cluttered, whilst the tuning-radios-whilst-the-bath-empties vibe of Anti-Antiphon (Absolute Decomposition)/ Anty-Antyfona (Dekonstrukcja Na Całego) veers close to ambient cliché. Still, Regards as a whole is a rewarding, absorbing listen, and is liable to instigate an outbreak of searches for Schaeffer originals in obscure corners of the ‘net over the coming weeks.