Those familiar with Matmos know they're not so much prone to making concept albums as they are to making high-concept albums. Their last effort (2006's The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast) was a set of “audio biographies” of ten of the duo's intellectual influences, and some of the samples created for that album would necessitate articles of their own to explain their relevance to that theme (for example, how a sample of a cow's reproductive system relates to feminist essayist Valerie Solanas).
For Supreme Balloon, Matmos have chosen a much simpler concept: It was recorded using only vintage synthesizers, with no laptop wizardry involved. This was a smart approach to take, and one that seems necessary to complete Matmos's oeuvre, because it brings their substantial compositional skills to the forefront. The thing that seems to get forgotten amidst all of the critical discussion of their experimental techniques is that Matmos know how to write some pretty phenomenal pop songs, which is what they do here.
The obvious standout of the seven songs here is the title track, a twenty-four-minute opus that floats past in such whimsically convoluted ways as to make one think, however briefly, that synthesizers could make a pretty good run against the guitar as the dominant instrument in pop music. In fact, much of the appeal of this album is that it hearkens back to the late '60s, when the most exciting bands were those, such as the Silver Apples, that built their own synthesizers, in anticipation of the mass-produced Moogs that would be so influential throughout the seventies.
Although the songs are filled with similarly light-hearted melodies, they vary enough in style to show off the breadth of sounds that can be made with these vintage synths. Everything that synths have traditionally been employed to do is done here, from the beatless ambience of “Cloudhopper” to the rave-up bloops and blips of “Mister Mouth.” Many of the sounds on this album seem thoroughly modern, such as the trip-hop beats of “Exciter Lamp.” Then the synths are put to the test of a classical piece -- a version of baroque composer Francois Couperin’s “Les Folies Francaises.” This application of the synthesizer’s capabilities across styles and time periods allows Matmos to explore their music through a more purely compositional aesthetic -- and, with any luck, they’ll be remembered for this just as much as for their experimental leanings.
The concept is straightforward: record an album using only synthesizers and no microphones. But for Matmos, a group that built its reputation on found sound and sampling loopholes, the decree is a considerable challenge. However, for a group that can bridge whoopee cushions with Björk, you can expect a certain amount of quality control.