Album review: Matmos’ new album is compiled from sounds of their washing machine
Ultimate Care II
Anecdotes from successful drummers will often feature kitchen utensils. While today you know them for their expert fills on an extensive array of percussion hardware, there was a time, they will dreamily recall, before all this. More innocent days, perhaps, when the artist was a child with a dream, happily bashing away on their family’s pots and pans.
Matmos, an electronic duo originally from California, aren’t young (they’ve been making music for 20 years) and they’re not entirely innocent (they’re both academics as well as musicians). But their work often investigates the joy in making music with what comes to hand. Rather than bashing away on saucepans, though, their latest album, Ultimate Care II, finds Drew Daniel and his partner M C Schmidt making a 38-minute work comprised entirely from manipulated sounds, all of which derive from their washing machine – the Whirlpool Ultimate Care II of the title.
Matmos have history with this kind of conceptual electronica. They have made an album of “old time” techno, and one about gay artists. Most notably, their album A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (2001) was constructed using elements sampled from surgical apparatus. On the last track on the record, they celebrated their home state with a 10-minute piece called California Rhinoplasty, composed of sounds sampled from cosmetic surgery, from the wheeze of the respirators to the snipping, stuffing and slurping of the procedure itself.
As with a lot of Matmos’s work, here they have no problem with a funny concept. To entertain with a full album, however, is a tougher challenge. Here, that challenge begins with the sounds of the washing machine’s programme dial being turned, a cycle being selected and the machine filling with water. A distant tribal drumming becomes perceptible, which mounts to take precedence over some placid sloshing. The rhythm remains steady and intensifies to become interspersed with what sounds like bursts of feedback, a throbbing initial cycle that ends at about six minutes, having made an impressive dent in the heavy soiling.
The rhythm then subsides, giving way to whirring, ticking and abstract electronica. It’s as if we’re witnessing not so much the process of the machine, but hearing its thoughts – and this is not the only time Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey springs to mind during this album.
In terms of more conventional musical reference, it throws back to the early abstract electronic music of Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd or Klaus Schulze, when the interaction of man and machine was more haphazard, and the music was often explicitly analogous to the steps being made in space exploration. It’s a cosmic interlude on our otherwise watery journey.
A re-emergence of rhythm is the next development, very much like Aphex Twin in the shuffling business and melancholic chording. At 19 minutes, the abstractions and the mounting rhythms merge, evoking (to stay in space) tense moments during a meteor shower. At what is most likely the end of side one on the vinyl version, the machine slows to a stop, to begin again on a more minimal footing, as if now there’s just a conditioner ball rattling around in the washer drum.
After a witty hip-hop interlude, all deep bass and whistle blasts, the intensity mounts again briefly before subsiding into another period of reflective whooshing, reminiscent of the kind of updated kosmische lately being proposed by the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never. This gives way to a pure deep, reverberating four-minute wash, a tremendous part of the album. When the people who work in launderettes have pleasant dreams, you would like to think they sound like this.
At half an hour, the reverie is interrupted as the drum empties of water, and we proceed in a more clanking and metallic fashion. Sibilant fizzing and heavy industrial pounding accompany us to the end of the final spin, in which we reprise some of the rhythms of the voyage out. There’s a passage in the last minute or so that references 1980s Kraftwerk, and then, with a buzz, the programme finishes.
It’s all strangely engrossing. Oddly, though, you neither completely forget that you’re listening to an album whose sound palette is an American washer/dryer, nor constantly have it mind. You admire the familiar rhythms, particularly the less orthodox ones, like that strange shuffle beat made as the drum rotates with only, say, a pair of jeans in it.
You’ll recognise that resonant wail made by your fingers on the polished internal surface of the drum. Here, it has been used as if it were a blast of melancholic saxophone by Albert Ayler. The washer has been disassembled and photographed in a number of arresting ways on the cover. But much like the machine itself, with concrete weights in the base to prevent it rocking around the room, the music never travels too far from its origin.
Instead, Ultimate Care II exists in a place halfway between domestic chore and imaginative journey. After all, it can be nice to fill the machine, and let your mind wander away from the prosaic nature of what you’re doing; have it be the background music to your daydream.
The album also works as a tacit comment on the business of making electronic music. To create from a palette of sampled sounds is not, arguably, an entirely fun process. For all the delight to be had in the end product (be that clean laundry or an album), there will be a lot of banging, level testing, recording and inputting. It will, indeed, become a domestic chore in itself.
Perhaps inevitably, given the skills of the duo, this is a pleasant album, and makes an interesting point about the humdrum nature of artistic inspiration, and the transformative power of art.
On the other hand, you have to wonder what the point is of going to the lengths of making an electronica record sourced from a washing machine, only to make music that could have just as easily been done without it.
It’s the fulcrum of conceptual art. Do you see the revolutionary idea or just a urinal hung in a gallery? Perhaps Matmos’s next work will untether itself from a concept altogether, exit the utility room, and step out into the unknown.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and The Guardian’s The Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.
Updated: February 2, 2016 04:00 AM