For San Francisco experimental duo Matmos, artificiality is next to godliness--or at least in its general vicinity. While their previous Matador albums and their production work for Bjork's Vespertine might bear a passing resemblance to Intelligent Dance Music's sound-for-sound's-sake, beneath the elliptical electronic rhythms lies a David Cronenberg-like fascination with the difference between the synthetic and the real. The hissing squeals on 2001's A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure were procured when the duo recorded the sound of liposuction surgery, and one of the album's haunting elegies sampled the band bowing rats' cages. Each track teased the borders between the man-made process of music production and the organic corporality of the human body, lending a certain dark humor to their fractured take on bodies-on-the-dance-floor techno.
With The Civil War, Matmos largely abandon their synthesized roots in favor of "authentic" instrumentation, inviting a slew of collaborators that include New York percussionist Tim Barnes, Louisville steel guitarist Keenan Lawler, and the Radar Bros.' Steve Goodfriend and Jim Putnam, not to mention various contributors on tuba, banjo, and peck horn. The general vibe is acoustic, swinging from Appalachian country to pseudo-medieval sing-songery, but in Matmos's hands, history (and the musical trends that have now become PBS-certified as "historical") is as synthetic as sample-processing techniques.
The first question the album raises: Which civil war are they talking about? While "For the Trees" sets some distinctly Southern pedal-steel guitar upon on a countrified shuffle drumbeat, "Zealous Order of Candied Knights" serves up a real-deal Renaissance bagpipes jig, spindling upon a martial drum line that drifts into discordance before becoming completely overwhelmed by washes of futuristic bleeping and robotic voices in "Reconstruction." That track is soon followed by a fantastically skewed cutup of "Stars and Stripes Forever" that recalls Joseph Byrd's opening collage on United States of America's self-titled debut. The blur of historical boundaries is, of course, intentional: Matmos toy with the tension between the artificiality of their recording techniques, the "authenticity" of acoustic musicianship, and the strange collision of fact, legend, and revisionism that we commonly refer to as history.
The album only suffers when Matmos forget the concept and lose themselves in knob-twiddling indulgences, like the rather pointless extended breakdown of "Pelt and Holler," which hisses and screeches to no great effect for four full minutes. Thankfully, the rest of the multihued mishmash is exhilarating: It's the kind of thing you might imagine that aliens made by reconstructing the last five decades of Western music using only the Anthology of American Folk Music, a couple of Learn to Play Renaissance Recorder records, and John Cage's "Williams Mix." There's no historical precedent for such a thing; Matmos are simply imagining the future for us.
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