Electronic music is one of the most satisfying and frustrating styles of music there is. In the first half of the century, scientists were putting banks of vaccuum tubes, spools of tape and circuit designs to create a music of the future. The reason they did this is because innovation comes strongest from the lust portions of the heart, and a number of young composers were hungry to find new sounds, new ways of crating music that broke off from the orchestra and sheet music and the same old notes. The scientists and their financial backers recognized that composers, who largely labor away their lives on an art that few witness already, would eagerly play with these toys and the innovations would come. And it did.
This zeal to create new art through new means spread like wildfire. Edgar Varèse fused electronic sounds and orchestras as early as the 30's, Pierre Schaeffer made songs out of the tapes themselves in his musique concrete in the 50's, and Milton Babbitt refitted atonalism to be created from blobs an bleeps in the 60's. The world of sound was now open. By the time the 70's rolled around, German hipsters embraced these electronics and ran the ragged petals of flower power's aftermath through their oscillators and filters, fusing the chrome future with the caveman stomp. Music was now jacked in and what did we do with it?
Created knucklehead dance music. Techno nearly always disappoints me - for all its lauded innovations and genius, the shit all sounds like pale comparisons of what a really good disco band could accomplish. The widespread advent of samplers, where we could use any sound ever, only made things worse. Not only did the new music sound like the old music, it was now made directly out of it. It sent the heartiest of futurists fleeing to the guitar store.
Fortunately, we have Matmos to mediate all of this. M.C. Schmidt (those are actual initials, not an overblown job title) and Drew Daniels have a deep knowledge of the progression of electronic music, its triumphs and subversions over time (Daniels has recently had published his treatise on Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats for 33 1/3's album series). Their previous albums made intelligent, sensitive use of sampling, with Surrealism and history being their guidelines as opposed to convincing a room full of drug addicts to raise the roof. On Supreme balloon however, the duo chose to work with synthesizers alone, recapturing the zeal and promise of early electronic music with considerable aplomb.
The tracks almost serve as a primer for his music. "Rainbow Flag" is a syncopation of hisses and clicks and Kraftwerk-style train and phone sounds, culminating in some kind of manic robot samba. "Polychords" is a grand march complete with Baroque flourish and pileup of rhythms, befitting that of a returning hero. Kraftwerk is a touchstone influence here and on "Mister Mouth" as well, referencing the German group's knack for making the sterile slyly funky, letting the song fall apart and reassemble itself in the bridges.
"Exciter Lamp and the Variable Band" references the more obscure Silver Apples, a similar visionary duo from the late 60's headed by a guy named Simeon who played an instrument of his own invention called The Simeon. Matmos takes advantage of the machine's ability to reconcile innumerable complementary and conflicting rhythms to create this piece - maverick player-piano composer Conlon Nancarrow might also be a reference point here. "Les Foilles Françaises" points toward early 70's work of Walter/Wendy Carlos whose Switched-On Bach was not only the first classical album to go platinum, but was also the gateway to electronic music's popular acceptance. "Cloudhoppers" points leisurely to Brian Eno's ambient works, but with a decidedly more purposeful melody. Matmos has an almost singular dexterity with source material, allowing it to retain its own nature as it submits to the will of the song, and they demonstrate that ability to do so with their influences on the final hidden track - Arthur C. Clarke to Vince Clark and everything in between.
This is all fine, but the real heart of this record is the 22-minute title track that shoots a laser beam right through the meditative ground tilled by Klaus Schulze and Terry Riley in the early 70's. Schulze was an important catalyst in Krautrock, having been on the ground floor of both Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel before embarking on an interstellar trip of 100+ albums since then. Riley studied under the wooly guru of American Minimalism La Monte Young, finding in electronics the means to pull off the eternal music Young sought on his breakthrough album A Rainbow in Curved Air.
On "Supreme Balloon," we find traces of all this: Riley unraveled raga, Schulze's sense of epic progress imbibed with a warmth hard to find in modern electronic practice. If it sounds a bit like some of the Pete Townsend synth parts from Who's Next, it is because they are feeding off the same influences, but where The Who was always pushing to a breaking point, Matmos is achieving liftoff. This is the kind of music that wears its influence on its sleeve while finding its own trajectory, using the machine to extend the soul. This is not only a great song, but an example of transcendent use of technology, of realizing that the universe is nothing but a set of tools and our own inspiration is the blueprint.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com