Electronic duo Matmos' inventive new album, 'Plastic Anniversary,' weaves an environmental commentary through the sounds of plastic objects. ( Theo Anthony)
Perhaps the most potent symbol of human impact in this age of Anthropocene is plastic, a material so omnipresent in modern life that the Bakelite Corporation once boasted that it constituted a "fourth taxonomic kingdom" alongside animal, mineral and vegetable. Since people began producing plastic in the '50s, we've manufactured billions of tons of it—only nine percent of which have been properly recycled by National Geographic's estimates. That unaccounted plastic has ruptured the stomachs of whales, swirled into massive islands of junk and been found at the deepest depths of the ocean.
No other material shapes itself to fit human desire like plastic, nor is there a more apt metaphor for those desires in conflict with the natural world than a water bottle at the bottom of the ocean.
The Baltimore (by way of San Francisco) electronic duo Matmos wield the symbolic power of plastics to kaleidoscopic effect on their new album, Plastic Anniversary (out last week on Thrill Jockey). That title, which works as an allusion to the Anthropocene, also celebrates 25 years of Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt's creative and romantic partnership.
Since their self-titled debut in 1997, Matmos have proven some of the most reliably fun and adventurous alchemists of dance music: collaborating with Björk and Rachel's, reimagining operas and maintaining widely acclaimed soloprojects. Working in the tradition of musique concrète—composing music from recorded sound—Matmos have produced riotous disco from a steam vent, stomping techno from a washing machine and slurping grooves from an actual liposuction. On Plastic Anniversary, Daniel and Schmidt have restricted themselves to plastic instruments and created their most conceptually rich album to date.
"For us, the record is about starting from the given-ness of plastic junk," says Daniel. "We live in a world in which we're surrounded by plastic crap all of the time, and we're sort of encouraged to aestheticize our lives as if that wasn't true. [You see] sort of an Instagram version of people's lives … and just out of the frame is a lot of plastic garbage."
While Matmos' work has always featured a certain degree of novelty baked into the concept, the pure uncanniness of sound that Daniel and Schmidt capture on Plastic Anniversary leaves listeners constantly questioning what exactly they're hearing. Throughout Plastic Anniversary, the suffix "-like" becomes crucial to describe the slightly-off sounds of recognizable instruments that Daniel and Schmidt have recreated in a completely plasticine way.
The moody strum that accents "The Singing Tube" wasn't generated by a guitar, but from a PVC tube hit with a toilet brush. The horror movie synths that ground "The Crying Pill" derive from the groan of plastic containers.
Elsewhere, Daniel and Schmidt use a single source to capture worlds of emotion. "Thermoplastic Riot Shield" features Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier and band members from Whitefish High School in Montana rubbing and hitting the titular shield to create a dread-inducing martial stomp. It's a track informed by the protests the couple had attended in opposition to the Trump presidency.
"Cops play them when they're marching," says Daniel. "There's sort of a crypto-musical dimension to them, which isn't surprising. Percussion and war have gone together for a long time."
The spark of inspiration for the album's concept was Daniel looking through Matmos' house and coming upon the plastic jockstrap he wore when he first met Schmidt while go-go dancing. "When I went to dig it out… I noticed that the plastic was decomposing," says Daniel. "When we think of plastic we think of it as this impervious substance, in fact it does just change over time like we all do."
Matmos' material innovation also carries an undercurrent of reflection, but one that is never indulgent. Twenty-five years of partnership is a hard-won accomplishment and should be celebrated accordingly. Daniel and Schmidt do so in a progressive way, by creating new work that interfaces with (and sometimes outpaces) their greatest hits. "Silicone Gel Implant" would have been a stand-out on 2001's plastic surgery-themed A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, while the victorious title track's stuttering beats and horns seems like an update to 2003's The Civil War.
But for the inventive warmth of the album's earlier half, the final tracks are relentlessly bleak. "Collapse of the Fourth Kingdom"—an allusion to that boast by Bakelite—is a thunderstorm of plastic horns and marching drums (the school band again) over sulfurous vents of bass. Daniel and Schmidt expertly handle the track's competing elements, managing to stuff in delayed synth strikes that recall The Knife, before climaxing into an instrumental squall reminiscent of Swans.
The album ends on a quiet note with "Plastisphere," a whirring ambient track that evokes the rustling insects in David Lynch's Blue Velvet. To some, it will scan as a note of calm, a reprieve from the violence of the previous song. But to others, it will unsettle for this very reason. Plastic whistling, cooing and buzzing—a study of nature absent of actual nature. It's a track that demonstrates that The Plastic Anniversary is a history as much as it is an event, a musical display of the material's possibility and a reckoning of its environmental cost.
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