By Conrad Amenta | 8 December 2008
It’s hard to articulate what exactly constitutes electronic music, partly because the genre is a cynical play by marketers who’ve tapped out guitar-based angst and partly because whatever macro-genre exists for analysis subdivides at geometric rates. What other explanation can there be for Prefuse 73 and the Books sharing an EP—or Clark, Max Tundra, Keith Fullerton Whitman, and Jim O’Rourke sharing a store shelf? One thing that may be easier to agree on, however, is that the worst kinds of electronic music are often obsessed with pointing out how narrow the parameters of traditional music is. Whether it’s Aphex Twin dropping a needle on a circle cut-out of sandpaper, Björk’s radical discovery of a capella music or, most consistently, the pretentious slop that is Matmos, electronic musicians can affect like no other genre such grand gestures of segregated elitism, which can be charitably described as having one’s head up one’s ass. Matmos have some special distinction in that their Rat Relocation Program (2004) may still represent the lowest point of musical worth in the genre’s short history.
Which isn’t to say that the duo’s work is wholly without merit; where it’s most interesting is when their arrangements are unencumbered by their theses. I couldn’t give a shit about what quasi-academic framework justifies A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure (2001) and The Civil War (2003)—their subtle balances of cacophony and delicacy are intuitive, ecstatic, and musical. To dictate that the tools used to produce those albums are as important as the music itself is showy at best, an inherently selective assumption at worst. Judging by their excellent work with Björk’s concise and immaculate Vespertine (2001) tour, the two are best kept out of their own way.
Which makes Supreme Balloon a bit of an oddity, even in Matmos’ inconsistent discography. Weighing in somewhere between Beck’s Gameboy Variations (2005), Crystal Castles’ completely disposable electro-trash, and the transcendent The Civil War, Supreme Balloon is made entirely using classic synths and Moogs. For a group formerly relying upon found-sound techniques and spurious narratives, it’s as close to traditional as the two may ever concede. The seemingly pixilated sounds, chopped into boxy squawks, are purposefully made as inorganic as possible; somewhere along the way the two may have accidentally released an album.
At it’s best, such as on “Rainbow Flag,” Supreme Balloon is a joyful yet humble tribute to the analog bubbles at the bottom of electronic music’s glass, and a far cry from Matmos’ insistence on unsuccessfully unseating established songwriting mores. It has to be noted, though, that they just couldn’t resist the inclusion of two untitled tracks, the first of which is over fifteen minutes and the second just six seconds, in a needless move I can only assume was designed to blow small minds into realizing their slavish loyalty to corrupted ideas like concision and substance. The bloated addendum is even more telling when considering that, without it and the extended drone of the title track, Supreme Balloon would only be about eighteen minutes long.
For all their thankfully trimmed premises, Supreme Balloon is revealing in that it shows how little Matmos truly have to offer as musicians rather than armchair musicologists. Meta-statements about how music is made are interesting and useful for about the duration of one album, but to seat them at the core of one’s band is problematic; removing microphones and found-sound from the process is therefore a challenging move, but also cannot help but reveal yet another introspective self-portrait, impossible without the albums that precede it. Inoffensive, largely listenable, and accessible, the album is still stunted, and so never reaches the peaks of The Civil War, still their best and most fully formed effort. One can only expect their next to be a return to the self-elevation of conscious statements and imaginary professorships.