Alexander Rubin gets laundered with Matmos at Floristree.
“I gotta warn you, this is genuinely an experiment… It’s experimental fuckin’ music! Alright, so we’re gonna play a washing machine now.” So went the ‘word of caution’ offered by Martin (M.C.) Schmidt, one half of the electronic duo Matmos, before beginning their set at Floristree on February 20.
Schmidt, alongside partner Drew Daniel, has been releasing experimental, ambitiously conceptual records for just shy of twenty years. Each album possesses a central theme and ‘instrumentation’ (typically, manipulated field-recordings) in some way relating to that theme. The music on their 2001 release A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure was comprised entirely of sounds from medical procedures — and yes, you could STILL dance to it.
Saturday night was the record release show for Ultimate Care II, Matmos’s latest album, which is inspired by –and features only- the sounds of Schmidt and Daniel’s washing machine.
In an age when anybody with a MacBook and well-defined cheekbones can be called an electronic musician, Matmos still inhabit a unique niche within their genre. One could argue that this is to due to their penchant for gimmicks, utilizing the most outlandish objects to compose ‘accessible’, ‘animate’ pieces of electronic music. What –as far as music goes- could be a better fitting, smug addition to the snowy peaks of fringe electronica than creating intelligent dance music using the obnoxious or totally subliminal noises surrounding us all?
Is their goal, in feeding this aural palette back to us some sadistic joke?
Is Matmos trying to shtick their way to stardom one wacky noise record at a time?
Having never seen them perform live before, the Ultimate Care II show was an opportunity to settle my opinion on the matter, to see whether or not their Midas touch for ‘gimmick-tronica’ is built to last.
The crowd ranged from aloof art students to High Zero Foundation friends and alumni, from harsh noise connoisseurs to Baltimore’s stars of sound & video: Jason Willett, Jimmy Joe Roche, Dan Deacon.
Matmos’s opening act was Bonnie Jones. Her set –visually and sonically- was a familiar one: artist runs guitar pedals through a mixing board, creates an aural veil of oscillating feedback, half the crowd feels alienated, ends on a high note, or rather, shrill pitch.
Between sets, beneath the watchful eye of Matmos’s washing machine perched on-stage, many schmoozed over booze or took solace in glass pipes. Voices got louder. The air got skunkier. Festivity was in the air. The crowd was jazzed for Matmos who — dignified, charming, yet without ceremony- took the stage at midnight.
After his aforementioned introduction, Schmidt and Sam Haberman –a local musician from the band Horse Lords- assumed positions on both sides of the Whirlpool Ultimate Care™ II, Schmidt giving it the initial crank (i.e. initiating a wash cycle). Schmidt then invited the crowd to be seated and those closest to the stage complied, giving the whole scene –now visible to those of us on the outer rim of the crowd- a ceremonial, ritualistic feel.
Drew Daniel sat offstage, slightly left of center. He was surrounded on all sides by large throw pillows and short, wide tables on which sat two MacBooks and a vast array of electronic gadgetry. Each musician made eye contact and then turned his attention to their respective instrument and, for the next 30 minutes, looked at little else.
Schmidt alternated between playing rhythms on the washing machine and manipulating pre-recorded samples on a keyboard. Haberman stayed put at the machine. Daniel sat in front of them all, like some kind of mystical EDM alchemist, and converted the sounds made on stage into glitchy yet danceable rhythms.
Matmos’s thumping, metallic music, coupled with the giddy, inebriated crowd, intoxicating scents in the air, and trippy videos being projected onto the band as they performed resulted in 15-20 minutes of shear hypnosis. After that, due to an overall lack of fluctuation in the aforementioned elements, boredom started to seep in.
The first half of Matmos’s set lasted 30 minutes, the second 10. Aside from the excitement of seeing Schmidt turn on the washing machine at the beginning of the show, it was during the second half of the set that things took off. It is possible, due to uncertainty as to how incorporating the washing machine live would go, that the band trekked carefully through the first three quarters of their concert, only to come alive in the last 10 minutes. Suddenly, the music, spirits, and overall energy were rejuvenated, turning what had become a somewhat dull event into the spectacle all had initially hoped for & come to see.
After listening to Ultimate Care II twice since its release last Friday –once before and once after the show—it is clear Matmos are a group whose music is larger and more important than the gimmicks on which it is built. While the show was certainly engaging, the presence of a washing machine and thin men hitting it rhythmically got old quickly.
The album, on the other hand, is a densely layered, sonically thrilling experience that creates its own patchwork of mental images beyond any that might be replicated live. Therefore, while Matmos are absolutely much more than the Carrot Top of musique concrète, proven by simply putting on one of their albums and letting the music speak for itself.
Alexander Rubin lives in the suburbs and loves in the city — Baltimore City. He is a writer, filmmaker, & music composer.