There’s a scene in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth where Michael Caine’s retired maestro Fred Ballinger is shown alone on a Swiss hillside, listening to birds and a herd of cows. He stands, raises his hands and starts conducting nature – moos, tweets and cowbells shaking in a glorious cacophony. At once daft and profound, it suggests he can find inspiration, and music, in everything.
Baltimorean duo Matmos certainly can. After sampling the sounds of cosmetic surgery on 2001’s A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure – threading nips, tucks and scrapes into glitchy, enjoyable electronica – and using folk instrumentation, alongside close-miked brushing of a rabbit’s fur and the movement of blood through a carotid artery, on The Civil War, they’ve taken this ‘kitchen-sink’ approach to a logical conclusion, constructing Ultimate Care II entirely from the sounds of their own washing machine. (Yup.)
Composed of one, unbroken thirty-eight-minute track, the album was conceived to be the length of a normal wash cycle, with the titular Whirlpool machine (revealed to be a pleasingly vintage-looking top-loading thing) surviving unscathed: no washing machines were pushed down flights of stairs in the making of this album.
Quite what it all means is unclear: is it a piece of conceptual art? Or are Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt, together with friends invited to ‘play’ the machine (including the composer Dan Deacon and Half Japanese’s Jason Willett), taking us to the cleaners? Either way, the results are often fascinating. Matmos clearly revel in exploring and manipulating sound, however unlikely the source, and there’s a variety here: splashing, sloshing water; steel drum-like thudding and clanking; satisfying, compliant little noises of doors, dials and switches and brassy stabs resulting from moistened finger-tips and the machine’s metal exterior.
Musically, too, it’s beautifully realised, structured in movements which incorporate numerous different styles. In the first minutes, off-beat taps play against a jazzy, syncopated backbeat, with ecstatic bursts of elephantine trumpet-squeals; these are replaced with a juddering, almost tribal clanking, just as quickly shifting to a steady shuffle with a deep, bassy thrum. Consistently inventive, the listener is allowed little chance to tire of what might have been a wearying gimmick.
Lulling into abstracted, ambient territories at around the ten-minute mark, the machine’s sounds are processed to such a point – transformed into twinkling, tintinnabulating blips – that it’s easy to forget what you’re hearing, as a moody, downtempo rhythm kicks in, interrupted minutes later by a brief, punishing foray into AFX-like beats.
Should it slip your mind, though, in the midst of the all the manipulation – a fidgety percussive pattern one moment and a high, haunting melody at another – that you’re listening to a washing machine, there’s a brief passage towards the end where the curtain is pulled back and we hear the Ultimate Care II itself, unadorned. You can almost imagine the duo’s delight at convincing us all to listen to them doing their washing (“I’ve honestly never had so much laundry done in my life,” Daniel told Pitchfork). But it works as a moment of calm before the last seven-minute stretch of tuned percussion sounds, ominous thuds and brilliantly funky switches and clicks, all steadily winding up and building in intensity to become a thunderous, banging final spin.
Whether intended to be profound or daft, Ultimate Care II could mean everything and nothing. But when we’re expected to accompany every moment of our days with a unique, specially-selected playlist – curated by a faceless algorithm or Zane Lowe, piped into our homes and ears like water – it appears to say that there’s music being made around us all the time: we need only listen.