A couple of things I played rather a lot over the weekend: the second Brightblack Morning Light album from 2006, which reminds me of unbearably hot afternoons in our old office, and which still sounds gorgeous on a windy Saturday afternoon in March; and “Supreme Balloon”, the 24-minute title track of the new album from Matmos.
“Supreme Balloon” – the album, that is – initially seems like something of a departure for the Matmos duo. As the thoroughly eloquent press release explains (I wonder if Drew Daniel himself wrote it?), the album was entirely constructed on antique synths: Moogs, Arps, Korgs and so on, plus a very grand Coupigny modular synth housed at Radio France and previously utilised by, and I quote, “some of the titans of musique concrete”.
“Supreme Balloon”, we’re told, is not such a conceptual piece as its predecessors: the traditional Matmos technique of sampling odd sounds, then making thematically consistent music out of them (most famously, I guess, on the operating theatre squelches which became 2001’s A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure), is abandoned here. I’m usually a little suspicious of music which seeks to ellide form and content in this way, suspecting that it’s more akin to stunt art than aesthetically satisfying music. But the rigorous, vigorous smartness of Matmos, and the playful music which comes out of their intellectual processes, has never failed to be enjoyable as well as satisfying.
The same goes for “Supreme Balloon”, which is far from just a bunch of tracks made out of synths. In some ways, I think it’s a celebration of how electronic music has a history: that this music, so doggedly presented as futuristic, has a backstory that can match rock for richness. It’s a celebration, too, of how synthesisers have been the tools that powered both the classical avant-garde and the notionally disposable, kitsch extremes of pop and dance music. Matmos, it seems, are intent on collapsing the barriers between high and low art – or maybe I’m overthinking all this, and they’re just having fun with some cool old toys.
Listen to the squelching epiphanies of “Polychords”, anyway, and you’ll find something that’s as rooted as much in the work of Chicory Tip as, um, granular synthesists. And while “Mister Mouth” may feature Marshall Allen from the Sun Ra Arkestra on, yep, a breath-controlled oscillator, its frantic squiggles aren’t a million miles from the stuff being made by all those hotwired Gameboy jockeys riding the underside of the nu-rave boom. Matmos are better, mind.
“Les Folies Francaises”, meanwhile, is a baroque trinket by Francois Couperin which the press release has the good grace to admit has been “given the Wendy Carlos treatment”. But it’s that title track I’m fixated on: a gently undulating electronic meditation, which floats into the same rapturous airspace as any number of early ‘70s kosmische types (the admitted reference is Cluster, which is a good starting point). I’m reminded too, though, of something fractionally earlier – the salute-the-sun ecstatic wobble of Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow In Curved Air” (Riley apparently turns up himself on a vinyl bonus track, “Hashish Master”, which I don’t have here).
It’s compellingly beautiful. A historical recreation, I guess, but one imbued with such love and melodic sophistication that it demands to be treated as the equal of its influences, not as their derivative. It’s an irony that might amuse them, hopefully, that while Matmos have made some fabulous and genuinely innovative records in the past (“A Chance To Cut”, “The Civil War” and “The West” are all terrific), this expansively lovely, historically resonant epic of synth-psych might just be my favourite thing they’ve ever done.