Matmos’ “The Conusming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form” is a paradox. A triple album, its CD incarnation contains three hour-long compositions with no breaks. The streaming version is sequenced differently, divided into 44 songs. This is demanding music, made to get absorbed in. It’s also jumpy as a bottle of Dexedrine, moving from genre to genre and sound to sound, even within songs, in a manner that’s Extremely Online. Minute to minute, the album feels made for people with frazzled attention spans, but as an entire project it’s time-consuming and ambitious to a degree that’s rare now.
Matmos consist of Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt, a gay couple who’ve been making music under the name for 25 years. Many Matmos albums have been built around conceptual restrictions and unusual sample sources. Their 2019 “Plastic Anniversary” manipulated sounds taken from various plastic objects, with barbed political commentary contained in their choice of song titles, especially “Thermoplastic Riot Shield.”
On “The Consuming Flame,” Matmos invited 99 musicians to contribute anything they wanted to, as long as it was 99 beats per minute. Daniel and Schmidt then assembled everyone’s selections into a semi-cohesive whole. “The Consuming Flame” questions the idea of the group’s identity. By building most of the album around sounds made by other artists without Matmos’ appeal, are they making an album from a different source of samples yet again? And when is the inevitable remix album coming out?
Drew Daniel offers a hopeful note; with M.C. Schmidt, new effort may be too ambitious for many
“I’m Fine I’m Fine” stands out by being based around recognizable vocals. It layers spoken word, which reflects a couple’s argument but is phrased in near-random words (“I’m on the team”), over Dixieland jazz. “Goodnight Loving Bose Ikard” takes a whistle and guitar line reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks but sounds like a mash-up, placing it on top of a dance beat. “Athens New Guinea Gas Can Japan” introduces non-musical buzzing and scraping.
The highest-profile guest here is Daveed Diggs, who played Thomas Jefferson in “Hamilton” and is the vocalist for the hip-hop group clipping. But when Diggs pops up on “Circle of Swords,” he’s edited to sound like a skipping record. His voice is unrecognizable. Instead of turning into hip-hop, the song closes with spoken word samples over a voice loop. “I, Voxelman” features sped-up and distorted vocals, recalling the Residents. Elements of songs bleed into one another, but the beat from one might play out over a very different melody and then get replaced after 45 seconds. Faust’s “The Faust Tapes,” a suite of fragmentary art-rock songs released in 1973, and Laurie Anderson’s experimental pop hover over the album, but it’s hard to pick out any consistent tone or theme.
“The Consuming Flame” is an album that is more engaging to think about than listen to. But does that have something to do with my own limitations? Right now, expecting an audience to sink into a triple album that can’t be easily divided into individual songs is a dare. But the dare doesn’t seem worth the effort when Drew Daniel’s solo project the Soft Pink Truth released a much better album this past spring.
The Soft Pink Truth had specialized in paying tribute to anarchist punk and queering macho genres like hardcore and black metal by taking them to the dance club. But Daniel’s latest album, “Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?,” went into a much different direction. Responding to the psychic damage done by Trumpism, its warmth suggests a meditative regimen. Daniel worked with opera-pop composer Colin Self both there and on “The Consuming Flame,” but vocal texts get lost on the Matmos album.
“Shall We Go On Sinning…” draws from house music without developing its songs into dancefloor bangers. Instead, hummed vocals and synthesizer drones drift sideways. One can read any emotion into “The Consuming Flame,” but chances are it will be contradicted within a few minutes. On the other hand, “Shall We Go On Sinning…” looks to music as a way to construct an image of a better world on the other side of our current hellscape. By design, it’s an easier listen, but I don’t think I’m copping out in finding it a far more rewarding one.
MATMOS | “The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form” | Thrill Jockey | Drop Aug. 21 | thrilljockey.com
SOFT PINK TRUTH | “Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?” | Thrill Jockey | thrilljockey.com