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The Civil War

The Civil War
(Matador Records)

I've made no attempt in trying to hide the fact that I think that Matmos are easily one of the most talented groups in modern music right now. It was somewhere after I'd heard their conceptual masterpiece of A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure, and then backtracked into their catalogue and found that despite their somewhat standard self-titled debut, the duo had been making giant leaps in both production and ideas both in their work and when they left their fingerprints on the work of others. They've made a deconstructed country/western album (The West), remixed chamber rock into a crushing mass of cathartic release (the Full On Night collaboration with Rachel's), scored gay porn films (A Viable Alternative To Actual Sexual Contact under the pseudonym of Vague Terrain), and put out two live collaborations that shamed many artists studio discs (the limited Live With J Lesser and Wide Open Spaces with People Like Us And Wobbly).

I already knew that their newest release wasn't going to take on quite the conceptual framework that their last couple releases had, but I'd read different pieces about the group using a little bit more arcane and esoteric sound sources for their new release. They chronicled some of their journey's on their their website, and when they mentioned sampling the largest assembly of piano players ever (put together in Kentucky for a Guinness Book Of Records stunt) playing John Philip Sousa songs, I was already flat-out stoked. The press release for the album states that the group has tried to, "make the 2003 version of the 1990 version of the 1968 version of the 1860 version of the 1590s." That's a big convoluted, but it's also fairly apt.

Opening with "Regicide," you can tell that you're already in for something unique. Dobro and hurdy gurdy's provide an almost medieval backdrop while a recorder melody floats like a bird and programmed beats sputter in behind it all. "Zealous Order Of Candied Knights" brings back the hurdy gurdy (which sounds something like an accordion), while growling programmed beats rumble in the background and recorders, tuba, and violin add even more layers as the whole track takes on sort of a sinister minstrel feel. Both tracks are stunning.

"Reconstruction" continues with the same sort of renaissance theme, but brings things decidingly more into the present as swirls of digital noise abound and the whole track lurches along before breaking down and building back up again on more than one occasion over the course of 9 minutes. It's easily the most dense track on the disc, and just when you think it's done, it goes off in yet another direction, twisting back on itself for over 9 minutes. "Yield To Total Elation" goes back in time to an earlier digital age, as Keith Fullerton Whitman and M.C. Schmidt both get to try their hands on old-school modular synths from the Harvard University studio for electro-acoustic composition. Overall, the sounds aren't anything that aren't replicated elsewhere, but their classic crunch and bite make it into the mix several time and make you wish that more of the dinosaurs were still roaming around for the masses to tinker with.

The only real mis-step on the album is a cover, interestingly enough. The duo rip apart "The Stars And Stripes Forever" by John Philip Sousa and put it back together using tweaked beeps from an emergency alarm system and all kinds of field recordings, horns, and just about everything but the kitchen sink. Given the tone of the rest of the release, it's just a little bit too squirrelly sounding, but it's all over in just about 2 minutes and the album is back on track with a killer closing three tracks. This is an album that I could have easily talked about every single track and the unique sounds on it, but if you've heard Matmos before, that's the case with most of their work. The Civil War is easily their most realized work to date, however, and the duo had a whole slew of guest musicians (something like 20 people) tossing in everything from bits to major contributions (including former Acetone member Mark Lightcap as practically a third member). If you're curious about the group but haven't taken a chance on them yet, this is the perfect album to start. If you've heard them before and like them, you'll probably have already bought it.

Rating: 8.5