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Ultimate Care II: The Hidden Beauty of Sound

| Thursday, February 25, 2016

UltimateCare_WebLucy Du

In a sense, the output of Matmos is the opposite of electronic music. The Baltimore duo is notorious for isolating mundane sounds — from bread ovens to cigarette butts — and acknowledging their hidden beauty, using their electronics merely as tools to draw them out of the field recordings that form the basis of many of their albums. Their oblique creative process has certainly pushed the envelope of experimental production since the start of their career in the late ‘90s, but clear in the attitudes of the two producers is that their approach to music is not so technical as it is deferential, a way of paying due attention to the ongoing sound that envelops the organic world.

“Ultimate Care II” follows 2001’s pleasantly perplexing “A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure,” an album composed primarily out of the sounds of plastic surgeries and other medical procedures, and 2006’s unexpectedly moving “The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast,” many of whose songs evolve like a postmodernist radio drama. The concept behind “Ultimate Care II,” the duo’s latest release, is in its apparent ludicrousness simply another variation upon a theme, one rather at home in their discography.

And Matmos’s latest is truly a “release” rather than “album” or even “song.” What else to call the continuous 38-minute journey through the musical dominion of home appliances? Perhaps we are classical purists in not calling it a fully realized concerto. The central instrument of this piece is, after all, no grand piano, no cello or violin, but the Whirlpool Corporation’s Ultimate Care II washing machine.

The concerto begins with the familiar knob turn of a laundry cycle’s start, followed by the sound of water sloshing inside of the machine, thick and absorbing as if heard from inside its bowels. It is not long, however, before we are swallowed by the industrial polyrhythms of the washer’s metal exoskeleton; backing drums here are provided by the eponymous organ of the appliance. The piece evolves from there. The atmosphere ebbs and flows between high-intensity tides of apocalyptic arrangements to steady bouts of almost-danceable IDM and even occasional dips into drone-like, aquatic diminuendos. The duo is able to explore this wide range of textures, settings, and moods by manipulating the Ultimate Care II in a variety of ways, yet never using anything other than its own devices. What sounds like a squeaky horn-like instrument, for example, is in fact a wet finger skidding against the machine’s frame. In addition, Matmos collects no shortage of unearthly sounds through ingenious variations to their recording techniques. Microphones were placed in several unorthodox locations on the Ultimate Care II; sound was then fed back into the echoes of the washing machine’s tumbling core, a technique that recalls the methods prodigy saxophonist Colin Stetson employed in his extended studies of the bass saxophone.

Indeed, it is the craftsmanship and depth of exploration in this piece that makes it most impressive. Over the course of 38 minutes — about the length of a typical wash cycle — Matmos sounds desperate to get the most literal percussive bang for their buck. And they achieve it by and large.

But something about Ultimate Care II also speaks, appropriately, of mutual caring. Toward the end of the unlikely concerto, we are actually subjected to minutes of pure, unadulterated washing action. Boring? Brash? Benevolent, I would argue. After Whirlpool’s inadvertently musical contraption is all but disassembled for an album’s worth of music, the segment functions as their show of reciprocity toward the machine to which they singly owe their product. It is a reverent affirmation of the washer’s inherent aesthetic value, and by extension of the value of all the other artifacts in our daily existence whose musical potentials similarly go unnoticed. To them, Matmos seems to say: “we truly do care.”

Label: Thrill Jockey’

Recommended Tracks: N/A

If you like: Aphex Twin, Fennesz, Venetian Snares

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