Matmos Plastic Anniversary

[Thrill Jockey; 2019]

Styles: the coming ecological catastrophe, dance
Others: Pierre Shaeffer, Matthew Herbert, Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Matmos’s music is strange, and it has always been so. Here is a list of the strange ways that they have made music:

Matmos: Matmos starts out, right off the bat, by recording the nervous system of a crayfish. I don’t know how to do that. I’m not even completely sure what a crayfish is.
Quasi-Objects: A record made entirely out of everyday objects, if among your everyday objects you include a whoopie cushion and a banjo.
The West: Recorded with old-timey instruments in a new-timey way, i.e. with lots of digital manipulation.
A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure: This is really where Matmos hit their stride, weirdness-wise. This album was made entirely from surgery-related samples, including the grossly hypnotic sound of liposuctioned fat and the upsettingly groovy sound of LASIK lasers.
The Civil War: This is a play on words (how can a war be civil?) and also a reference to two real-world historical events: the English civil war of the 16th century and the American one of the 19th. As such, it uses a variety of historical instrumentation from both eras.
The Rose has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast: This album consists of 10 audio portraits of gay and lesbian figures, including typewriter sounds and a gunshot recorded in memoriam of William Burroughs, and the real, honest-to-goodness sound of flesh being burned by a cigarette to create a “Germs Burn” for Darby Crash of The Germs.
Supreme Balloon: All synthesizers all the time, baby.
Treasure State w/ So Percussion: The duo partner up with the strange percussionists of So Percussion to record an album based on basic materials like “Water,” “Aluminum,” and “Flame.”
The Marriage of True Minds: A meta record of verbal testimonials in a parapsychological experiment wherein group member Drew Daniel transmitted his thoughts about “what the new Matmos record will be about” to sensory-deprived participants. Quite strange, indeed.
Ultimate Care II: Made entirely out of sounds created with a laundry machine.

So there’s your context: A couple of absurdists, who are now taking on a new audio guise for their 11th album, Plastic Anniversary. And the topic they’ve chosen is, again, as strange as it is obvious: the world in/as plastic. The metaphorical plasticity of their sound is used to draw attention to the very real plasticity of our world.

The topic of plastic, and our inundation with it, is trite beyond imagining. Did you know that since 1950 we have created 6.2 billion metric tons of plastic? Of course you didn’t, because the real number is 8.3 billion. The fact is, these numbers are so staggering as to be incomprehensible to the layperson, such that a difference of 2.1 billion tons of non-biodegradable filth doesn’t register as correct or incorrect data. Statistics simply can’t get the message across.

What we need is a little strangeness. It is, after all, very strange that we drink from a bottle once, and then that bottle sits on the ground with other trash or floats in the ocean, forever. It is very strange that we listen to plastic (vinyl albums), play with plastic (billiard balls), control one another with plastic (riot shields), and insert plastic into our bodies (silicone implants). Perhaps Matmos will be the ones to defamiliarize all of this for us.

And Plastic Anniversary is unfamiliar, strange, unsettling, and wonderful. “Breaking Bread” is a goofy narcotic pop tune made from tweaking the broken shards of Bread records. “Interior with Billiard Balls and Synthetic Fat” takes its percussion from a game of billiards and its squelching atmospherics from synthetic fat. The terrifying “Thermoplastic Riot Shield” uses squeaks, scrapes, and percussion against a riot shield (which you can apparently buy on eBay) to evoke the chaos of a confrontation with militarized police. And the bouncy, frenetic, Autechre-inspired “Silicone Gel Implant” is sourced from… you guessed it. The breadth of the topics covered here, from police violence to plastic surgery, is testament to both Matmos’ inclusive experimentalism and the sheer pervasiveness of plastic in every arena of our lives.

The penultimate track, “Collapse of the Fourth kingdom,” implies our eventual victory over this dominance of plastic. Its title is based on the Bakelite Corporation’s characterization of plastic as a “fourth kingdom” apart from animal, mineral, and vegetable. Its triumphant drumline (provided by Greg Saunier of Deerhoof along with members of the Whitefish High School marching band of Whitefish, Montana) seems to celebrate our ability to overcome a seemingly hopeless situation, adapting plastic horns, drums, and whistles to signal a new way forward.

But this track fades into “Plastisphere,” a “field recording” made from bubble wrap, plastic bottles, packing tape, and, tellingly, a plastic emergency stretcher. They are sounds for those who like calm nature scenes, complete with insects, soothing winds, and falling water. The message, however, is clear: despite our exultant confidence in our ability to transcend and adapt to the world of plastic, nature will have its say, and nature is very much compromised by (and at this point altered by) our reliance on plastic.

Hidden in the first half of the album is “Extending the Plastisphere to GJ237b,” 10 seconds of what sounds like synth noises, but are in fact made from a plastic salad bowl. Upon first listen, this puzzling little snippet seems out of place — why give it its own track? As a part of the Sonar Festival, a low-bitrate version of this track was “beamed from a high-powered radio tower in Tromsø, Norway to the exoplanet GJ237b in the vicinity of the Luyten Star in the Canis Minor constellation.” And so the Earth will survive us, many plastics will likely survive us, and the sound of those plastics will survive us, blasting into outer space long after we’ve met whatever ecological reckoning is imminent. For now though, we have the sound of Matmos to, hopefully, make the strangeness of this situation a little clearer.

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