The Civil War' is the new album by San Francisco electronic duo Matmos. A hallucinatory double exposure of medieval English folk and 19th century Americana, The Civil War finds Matmos experimenting with a dramatically different palette from their critically acclaimed exploration of medical technology 'A Chance to Cut Is A Chance to Cure'. Though there's nary a scalpel in sight, their humorous cut-up sensibility and willingness to take risks remains intact. In a time when most electronic artists seem desperate to ape the sounds of 1983 as closely as possible, Matmos have tried to make the 2003 version of the 1990 version of the 1968 version of the 1860 version of the 1590s. Across the nine tracks on 'The Civil War', production styles and instrumentation keep telescoping backwards and projecting forwards, producing weirdly anachronistic dialogues: medieval jigs and reels joust against country and western twang, and pastoral acoustic folk gets pistolwhipped by crisp digital editing techniques.
A guerilla assault on rock, folk, and country maneuvers, 'The Civil War' keeps lines of communication open across genres and periods. If the opener "Regicide"'s keening hurdy gurdy recalls the Incredible String Band's psychedelic medievalism,the ambling piano line of "For the Trees" sounds like a distant cousin of honky tonk pianist Floyd Cramer's swooning instrumentals. Songs mutate and reverse direction: "Y.T.T.E" starts with tumbling big band drums that recall Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life", gatecrashes a Boredoms drumcircle, lilts into Chet Atkins twang, and finally scuttles to a close in minimalist soundfile manipulation. Deceptively "pretty" on the surface, it's music that struggles against itself and occasionally collapses, breaking down into amorphous skeins of noise, dissolving into raw field recordings of cicadas in the trees and Fourth of July fireworks, and, in "Pelt and Holler", unexpectedly jump-cutting to total silence. While much of this album's focus on untreated and close mic-ed acoustic instruments suggest a pickin' session on a Southern porch, the mellowness is peppered with peaks of scaldingly bright and extreme sonics. On this recording M. C. Schmidt and guest member Keith Fullterton Whitman (aka Hrvatski) had the opportunity to use one of the original Serge modular synthesizers built by Ivan Tcherepnin; its piercing squeals ricochet across the military drumrolls of "Reconstruction".
As their compositional appetite grew more ambitious and expansive, Matmos decided to bring in more musically gifted reinforcements from across America. Among others, Steve Goodfriend and Jim Putnam of Radar Bros. sit in on drums and guitar respectively, Jay Lesser plucked the dobro, Tim Barnes offered drum source samples, improv guitar manipulator Keenan Lawler ventured into the sewer pipes of Louisville, Kentucky for a subterranean steel guitar recording, fellow Louisville alumnus David Grubbs contributed piano, with a little coaxing Blevin Blectum added violin, and, providing the lion's share of guest contributions, Mark Lightcap (formerly of Acetone, now playing with Hope Sandoval) played tuba, peck horn, banjo, and heaps of electric and acoustic guitar. That said, Matmos' trademark ear for highly unorthodox sample sources endures: "Pelt and Holler" is made almost entirely out of the sound of a rabbit pelt, while "The Struggle Against Unreality Begins" features the sound of the blood in M. C. Schmidt's carotid artery.
Balancing baroquely detailed production against passages of stark single-instrument simplicity, Matmos have pushed themselves in an unexpected, and surprisingly tuneful, new direction. Part Canterbury tale and part Southern Gothic, 'The Civil War' eludes easy categories but rewards careful listening, responding to present tensions with historical imagination and sly wit.
Matmos is M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel. They have toured with Lesser, Labradford, The Rachels and Bjork, shared stages with Terry Riley and Wire, remixed The Melvins and Otomo Yoshihide (and most recently Erase Errata), and are still working on an ongoing collaborative project with The Kronos Quartet. They have taught seminars on sound art at Harvard University and DJed at proms for homeless teenagers. They have had pieces in the Whitney Museum of American Art, and have scored the soundtracks for five gay porn films. They are currently on tour with Bjork, and in November they are scheduled to present their first installation at the Yerba Buena Museum of Contemporary Art in San Francisco.
This is Matmos’ fifth studio album.
Reviews...A deliberately disorienting blend of electronica, medieval folk and 19th-century Americana....Well worth checking out... - Q