PRINT April 2016


Matmos’s Ultimate Care II

Cover of Matmos’s Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey, 2016).

SINCE THE LATE ’90s, the electronic duo Matmos have brought together musique concrète and dance music in singular, arch fashion, crafting ebullient tracks from audio samples that frequently exhibit a penchant, descended from industrial music, for grisliness: Materials they’ve wired or otherwise manipulated to produce sound include a human skull, a goat spine, a cow uterus, and the neural tissue of a crayfish. On Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey), released in February, they have narrowed their scope to a Oulipian degree, deriving all audio from exactly one, notably nonbiological, component: the titular Whirlpool Ultimate Care II washing machine, located in the basement of the Baltimore home shared by band members Drew Daniel and M. C. Schmidt. To produce the album’s single track, which spans thirty-eight minutes (the length of the machine’s wash cycle as well as that of the average vinyl LP), the duo miked up the appliance, pushing and prodding both the recordings and the machine itself to produce not only the expected sloshing noises but hammering beats, turntable-esque scratches, screechy horn sounds reminiscent of Jon Hassell’s modified trumpet, deep bass tones, marimba notes, and twinkly, space-age-pop arpeggiated chords. Much of this was achieved through extensive electronic processing, although it is noted that “no synthesizers or drum machines were used”—making the record something of a rejoinder to their 2008 album Supreme Balloon (Matador), an all-synth affair of which the group declared, “No microphones were used on this album.”

Unlike Matmos’s other records, which contain stand-alone tracks that cumulatively adhere to a unifying concept, Ultimate Care II is structured as a continuous journey, in the mode of Kraftwerk’s twenty-three-minute classic “Autobahn” (1974). Beginning with the sounds of the machine’s dial being cranked and the water starting to flow (also similar to “Autobahn,” whose evocation of a highway excursion starts with a car engine revving up) and ending with the buzzer that signifies the completion of the wash cycle, the album has, by my count, eight sections, mostly indicated by different beats suggested by the washer’s own chugging rotations. There are a few glitchy ambient moments and three minutes of more or less untouched water sounds that provide respite from the overall rhythmic onslaught. Far less hypnotic than “Autobahn” (or a wash cycle, for that matter), Ultimate Care II’s soundscape is in fact quite busy, its activity reminiscent of a hive rather than an appliance.

The choice of such a quotidian object from which to extract an album’s worth of content is, to some extent, Matmos’s most direct nod to Pierre Henry’s Variations for a Door and a Sigh (1963), a seminal musique concrète work drawn solely from recordings of a creaky door, human breath, and a musical saw (which, Daniel avowed in 2012, Matmos’s work “ripped off”). While similarly reductive in concept, Ultimate Care II is considerably more layered than Henry’s stark piece, in which no more than three sounds are heard at a time, but it’s also not quite as expansive as previous Matmos productions such as The Marriage of True Minds (Thrill Jockey, 2013), The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast (2006), or The Civil War (2003; both Matador), which incorporated multiple instruments alongside electronic tones. On those projects, all manner of worldly instruments (autoharp, hurdy-gurdy, vuvuzela, bagpipes) conveyed a multitude of genres, whereas Ultimate Care II’s washing machine approximates at most—in one clanking passage—a Balinese gamelan. The challenge here was to exhaust every music-making possibility of the machine’s surfaces (through direct physical contact—rubbing, drumming, etc.) and operation, treating it as a sound sculpture as opposed to a readymade.

Daniel and Schmidt have always made a point of disclosing the origins of their abstracted samples, and indeed their marketing has capitalized on these sources’ novelty, as with the notorious A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (Matador, 2001), which was made from audio mined from recordings of various surgeries. Ultimate Care II makes its subject matter explicit, in everything from the album’s title to its cover, which features a photomanipulation of the machine by artist Ted Mineo, to the typesetting of the jacket credits, which mimics the instructions on the lid. This conceit could come off as gimmicky in the hands of less erudite tinkerers, but in the washer Matmos have found a metaphor for the dialogue between the organic and the technological within their own practice: The machine’s use of water and electricity is echoed in Ultimate Care II’s sonic mixture of splashes and electronics.The band’s decision to construct an album around an appliance in their basement could even be construed as a wink at their own namesake: the lake of “pure evil” located under Sogo, the “city of night” in the film Barbarella, a swirling reservoir of cult aesthetics.

Alan Licht is a musician, writer, and curator based in New York.