Over the past ten years, the duo of Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt has released a slew of incredibly ornate and intellectual, conceptually organized electronic albums. There was the one about plastic surgery, and the one about the Civil War. Even Daniel’s side project, the Soft Pink Truth, sought a kind of subtle (yet joyful) deconstruction of house music. Matmos is one of the smartest music-making teams today (and not just because Daniel is an English professor at Johns Hopkins), so it is somewhat curious that this latest album, Supreme Balloon, comes lacking any overriding politically or socially engaged rubric. This time around, the rules were purely aesthetic: just synthesizers. No mics, no acoustic instruments, no vocal snippets chopped to hell and back, no pots and pans, no sounds of surgery. Just synths.
But what synths! The duo utilized a battery of classic models (Arp, Korg, Roland, Moog), but also incorporated strange and wonderful also-rans like the stylophone and the famed Coupigny, a French rig made famous by musique concrète artists. The result is a palette including super-primitive electronic sounds as well as stranger sounds that come across as slick, spacey and psychedelic. With the effortless electro-capabilities of laptops, it’s easy to forget that synthesizers, even old ones, can still yield sounds that are dislocating, uncanny, mind-melting. The golden age of electronic ambition — Esquivel, musique concrète, Switched On Bach and so on — underpin the whole sonic universe here.
On the Matmos website, the duo claim the I Ching had everything to do with editing out “discordant, harsh, clanging and abrasive songs” and retaining only the tunes with “a positive direction.” That seems a little pat until you start making your way through the tracks, from bouncy, breezy opener ‘Rainbow Flags’, with its hints of bossa and spacey sweeps, to ‘Polychords’, with its steamy four-four beat, breathy organ and acid counterpoints. There is a brightness to everything that’s downright blinding at times, a sort of celebration of the still-unlimited possibilities of electronic composition. Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Arkestra (now its leader) lends a hand, er mouth, playing a breath-controlled oscillator on ‘Mister Mouth’. Next up is ‘Exciter Lamp’, a darker, thornier track that manages to be abstract while hewing to regular beat patterns (as well as including a rendition of ‘O Canada’ and some bona fide video game effects — is that Pac Man?).
Other collaborators on the album include Jon Leidecker (Wobbly), Jay Lesser (Lesser), Keith Fullerton Whitman (Hrvatski) and pianist Sarah Cahill, who plays the “cover” version of ‘Les Folies Françaises’, a short piece (one of many folies) by French baroque composer François Couperin, a generous nod and wink in the Switched On Bach direction, and totally rapturous in all its stereo-rific glory (use headphones!). On vinyl editions of the album, jazz giant Terry Riley adds an ARP 2600 solo.
The title track takes up 24 minutes, a little over half of the runtime. It’s a meandering, often thrilling jam, which bears witness to the duo’s love for everything from classical music to kraut- and prog-rock, all underpinned by electronic tablas courtesy of an Indian drum machine. It is followed, oddly, by the brief, lighter-than-air coda confection ‘Cloudhopper’. It’s a funny sequencing choice, but in many ways the central track coalesces the varying strains of reference, humor, homage and exploration in the opening pieces, offering one of Matmos’ most approachable albums.