Experimental electronic duo Matmos have a long history of making music about and from unusual concepts and sources. Their 2001 album A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure employed recordings made during various surgical procedures, 2016’s Ultimate Care II used sounds from the pair’s own washing machine and 2014’s The Marriage Of True Minds was formed from attempts to telepathically communicate their intentions for the record to a group of individuals with subsequent feedback being incorporated into the album. Why, of course.
On latest album The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises In Group Form, the focus rests on method rather than any particular subject. The premise is relatively simple – 99 musicians were invited to contribute short pieces of music of any nature or form as long as the tempo of any rhythmic material was set at 99 beats per minute. Drew Daniel and MC Schmidt then pieced them together, applying their own individual touches.
In one sense, application of any clearly defined constraints seems to go against the free-flowing ethos they’ve carefully developed over the last 25 years. Yet, in terms of end result the album is typically unpredictable, sprawling and, well, very Matmos. The album is broken up into three pieces, each broadly one hour long. In short, it’s not for the faint of heart. The artists involved can be loosely identified by consulting the detailed chart that appears on the Thrill Jockey website but when listening it all sits appropriately under the Matmos banner.
The contributions come from disparate corners of the musical underground and beyond, featuring the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never, Yo La Tengo, Mouse On Mars, Matthew Herbert, Giant Swan, David Grubbs, Max Tundra, Andrew Tuttle, the wonderfully named Moth Cock and a whole host of others. The tempo may have been prescribed in advance but what follows never feels uniform, with all of the competing sonic elements distributed in typically irregular, often wonky fashion.
The first piece, A Doughnut In The Sky, at various points involves contorted gurgling noises, percussive clippings, vaguely robotic dialects, power-tooled dissonance, lo-fi jazz, floaty bubble bath evaporations and steel drums. So far, so Matmos. Naturally, certain sections appeal more than others, specifically those where something approaching a groove is formed, but the overarching ambition and scale of the piece helps keep the listener onside.
The second piece, I’m On The Team, boasts more in the way of insect electronica, dissected vocals and digital ephemera. It arguably has a bit more of an improvised feel (even if it wasn’t created that way). There’s one section that sounds like the soundtrack to some sort of weird alien invasion. At one point a female voice appears, intoning a line about “nice men in stable relationships”. Pleasingly consonant ambient stretches then surface before hyper, cut-and-paste collages reassert dominance. Comical, random lines of speech emerge from the ether. Basically, it’s music that is impossible to second guess.
The early stages of the third piece, Extraterrestrial Masters, recall the distorted chaos of Tim Hecker. Gradually electronic fissures form and the surrounding audio matter is broken up. At times it sounds like circuit boards are being playfully fried. Pointillist, spliced pulses give way to oscillating waves. There’s whistling and vaguely dub-like passages. Things then move in a distinctly musique concrète direction. It’s by no means an easy listen but it wouldn’t be Matmos without the occasional challenging moment.
Views of The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises In Group Form will largely be defined by broader attitudes towards experimental music. What some may view as an important counterweight to all things mainstream and standardised might be seen by others as self-indulgent largesse. These others would be wrong though – what this three-hour opus does is show Matmos to still be intrepid sonic explorers, pushing the boundaries of musical orthodoxy and consolidating their unique position within the avant-garde.