Beastly sounds of art

Matmos pays tribute to forgotten writers and artists on its latest album

Keri Carlson

For a Jackson Pollock painting, the visual impact has much to do with the physical process of the painting.

Pollock did not daintily paint from an easel; rather, he danced around his work splayed on the floor and flung paint wildly, splattering colors across the canvas. His paintings become more of an ode to his movements, a document of his actions.

The electronic duo Matmos continues contemporary art’s emphasis of placing thought and theory, process and method, over the final aesthetic quality. The appeal of Matmos albums are how they are made.

The group often creates sounds from noninstruments – from simply finding items around the house to somehow producing sound from the brain activity of crustaceans. Their 2001 album, “A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure,” featured all songs based on samples taken from plastic surgery operations. The sucking, squishing and drilling noises were spun into avant-techno.

On the latest album, “The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast,” the concept for creating the music is not as concrete as liposuction.

Here Matmos finds inspiration in people and each track is named after its muse. From philosophers to authors to punk rockers to the king of Bavaria, the selected group seems pretty arbitrary. The more obvious similarity, however, jumps out with just a basic Wikipedia search of the names. Most of the people Matmos selected are important gay and lesbian figures – or at least are rumored to be gay.

While this connection certainly gives the album a sense of cohesiveness, it is more important to note these people expressed their ideas despite butting heads with the cultural norm. Although they have been secluded to the fringes of history, their ideas have helped shape today’s culture.

Matmos pays homage to these artists and thinkers through generating sound that correlates to each individual.

At times the concept is straightforward. On the songs “Roses and Teeth for Ludwig Wittgenstein” and “Tract for Valerie Solanas,” Matmos has voices reading selections of their writings. “Solo Buttons for Joe Meek,” the most upbeat pop song on the album, uses loads of reverb and spacey sound effects to mimic the British producer with a crazier reputation than Phil Spector’s.

More abstractly, “Germs Burn for Darby Crash” samples cries of pain, referring to punk rocker Crash’s self-destructing habits – most famously, Crash would burn cigarettes into his arms. “Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith” finds Matmos using the most involved technique to gather sound. The group had snails’ movements recorded by a light sensitive theremin. The result is a dark and thrilling composition that reflects the surreal, Freudian nightmares that Highsmith paints in her novels (including “The Talented Mr. Ripley”).

For parts of “The Rose Has Teeth,” the idea behind the songs and their process of conception are better than the actual music. Nonetheless, Matmos once again has created an intriguing album in which every sound is a mystery. Even when the music is not necessarily pleasing, it’s always interesting. And this allows Matmos’ project to be just as much a tribute as it is an expansion of ideas.