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The Civil War

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Album Review

Once again, Matmos reinvents itself on The Civil War, an album whose subtly oxymoronic title suggests the inherent contradictions of its sound. While the duo sang the body electronic on A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, here Matmos returns to tweaking more conventional instruments into surreal soundscapes. In this way the album resembles The West, but The Civil War is more immediate and more aggressive, combining up-front melodies and concentrated glitches and manipulation into some of the group's best work to date. Moving from biology to history for inspiration, two of the album's reference points are the English Civil War of the 16th century and the American Civil War, each cleverly represented by "Regicide" and the wittily named "Reconstruction." The swarms of fiddles and flutes and rolling, martial drums that make up "Regicide" and the likeminded "Z.O.C.K." sound like they've come from some futuristic Renaissance fair (in the good way, of course) or an inspired collaboration between Aphex Twin and Hans Zimmer. "Reconstruction" begins with a percussive call to arms before unleashing digital hell, then segues into what could be an IDM version of Booker T. & the MG's' "Time Is Tight," and finally falls into place as gentle Appalachian folk that wouldn't sound out of place on the soundtrack of a Ken Burns documentary. Much of The Civil War is steeped in American music of one kind or another; with so many alt-country and Americana bands borrowing from electronica, it seems only fair that electronic artists like Matmos should get to use the signifiers of American music for their own devices. They do so abstractly on the oddly soulful reverie "For the Trees" and its fireworks-punctuated reprise, and most literally on the glitchy player piano meets falling-down brass band version of "The Stars and Stripes Forever," which is both playful and a sharp evocation of internal dissent. This tension between Matmos' playfulness and something darker in its music is a large part of what makes The Civil War such a compelling album. Amidst the twinkling tones, cheerful guitars, and bouncy rhythm of "Y.T.T.E." there are drums that sound like sniper fire and noises that sound like free-falling grenades; the vaguely insectoid "Pelt and Holler"'s shivery, galloping percussion and unnerving silences sound like a nighttime raid. The album's darkest and arguably most accomplished track is "The Struggle Against Unreality," which builds from menacing drones into brittle and wrenching countermelodies that walk the line between beauty and ugliness. While The Civil War isn't as exhilaratingly disorienting as A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, it's another triumph; history may repeat itself, but Matmos never does.


Formed: 1995 in San Francisco, CA

Genre: Electronic

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Closer in spirit to the American indie underground than the U.K.-dominated electronic music scene of the late '90s, Matmos was one of the era's more unlikely left-field electronic acts. Drew Daniel and Martin C. Schmidt's microscopic abuse of sourcings as varied as freshly cut hair, the amplified neural activity of crayfish, washing machines, and the human voice (along with a few synthesizers and drum machines) was instantly distinguishing, and created a niche for their music that endured for decades....
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The Civil War, Matmos
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