Answers to a few pertinent questions concerning the good men of Matmos: yes, they are “partners.” Yes, they have claimed to be closer to sound collage artists than actual musicians. And thankfully, they do not in any way resemble the Pet Shop Boys.
In the past, those frightened to flight by the phrases “audio installation” and “multimedia project” were best advised to stay away from Matmos, the current kings of conceptual electronica. But they have become much more visible to the public after contributing significantly to Bjork’s Vespertine. The duo’s last album, 2001’s A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, was a fascinating but uneven affair, based on tracks built with found sounds from specific medical procedures. For example, to create “California Rhinoplasty,” Matmos set up shop inside an operating room during a cosmetic nose realignment. “For Felix (And All The Rats)” sounded just like more amazing keyboard/percussion ambience until the listener perused the liner notes to find that all sounds on this track were creating by the scraping and striking of metal poles across the frame of a rat cage (followed by heavy studio manipulation).
This was, perhaps, the very tip of Matmos’ conceptual iceberg. By contrast, The Civil War is a much more modest affair, but don’t think they have simply abandoned their intellectual leanings. This record is a very loosely defined tribute of sorts to music from both the American and British Civil Wars and the rural “Americana” period that developed around the end of the 19th century. Though it contains no masterpiece on the scale of “For Felix,” The Civil War is by far their most accessible release, making use of guest spots from fellow electro-experimentalists Keith Fullerton Whitman, Blevin Blectum, and David Grubbs of Gastr Del Sol, as well as (gasp!) actual acoustic instrumentation.
“Regicide” opens closer to 19th century Dublin than the Carpetbagger South, with guest Jay Lesser’s dobro sounding uncannily like a bagpipe. Of course, Matmos would not let such a track slip through their clutches without thoroughly splicing it up, and after some brief melodies the track breaks into distortion before returning to its roots.
“Reconstruction” may have been recorded live, as it sounds closer an actual band than anything Matmos has previously recorded. The slowly charming acoustic/pedal steel balladry that closes the track almost sounds like and outtake from jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s own Americana tribute, Have a Little Faith. It turns out M.C. Schmidt can actually play traditional instruments quite well — though Matmos’ trademark glitch treatments can be heard bubbling beneath.
“YTTE (Yield to Total Elation)” is perhaps this album’s strongest track, moving from subtle opening chimes to playful major key electric guitar lines that perfectly match the blissed-out title. The song then recedes into quiet blips and pops before disappearing altogether. “For the Trees” makes effective use of guitar sampling, but somehow feels a bit plain. “Struggle Against Reality” is a more effective orchestral dirge, making way for the the closer, the sedate “For the Trees (Return).” Their ridiculous reading of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is the album’s least essential track. Much more entertaining is a review of the liner notes describing the Harvard seminar participants who may (or may not) have created the sounds on this track using instruments such as a sink, “compressed air”(?) and the punch line, “a copy of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy being dropped on the floor.” That’s pretty funny, guys, but it’s much better in concept than execution. Some have voiced disappointment with this album, labeling it too, well, ordinary for a group used to pushing the boundaries of severely modern pop and all out noise. Perhaps this critique is apt; The Civil War is definitely not Matmos’s most significant work, but it is their friendliest, most consistent album.