First things first, a spoiler warning. Any attempt I make to discuss Return To Archive – or, indeed, pretty much anything by techno-experimentalists Matmos – is going to alter the way you listen to it.
Music is, of course, subjective. Listening is always an interpretative act. But, unless you come to Matmos’s albums completely without context, the high-concept underpinnings of the duo’s work make them near-impossible to consider on their own terms.
If you hear 2019’s ‘Fanfare for Polyethylene Waste Containers’ in isolation, for instance, you may take it on its surface as evocative, even danceable electronica. But what about when you find out that every sound on its parent album, Plastic Anniversary, comes from plastic objects?
It’s to the duo’s credit that their audio adventures are often so listenable in their own right, but this context is so singular, so striking, so thought-provoking that the means can distract from the (excellent) music. Return To Archive sees Matmos using the field recordings of Folkways Records to interrogate this very tension between art and craft.
The album opens with ‘Good Morning Electronics’, a brisk rattle through snippets of sound. Despite the lack of any percussion, the track rockets along so swiftly that it gains a cartoonish pulse of its own. There is a disorienting delight in its breakneck, flick-book pace as it thwacks and dings and gurgles along, like seeing the world through the windows of a high-speed train.
This playfulness continues into ‘Injection Basic Sound’. By building a sputtering drum-and-bass beat out of wet organic noise, and slinging weird belchy twangs and croaks over the top, Matmos ironically create one of the more accessible offerings on the record.
However, the spoken word segments foreground the meaty surgical origins of these yawns and splutters. Does this render it too revolting to enjoy? Or do the duo’s implications about the irrationality of disgust and the musical potential of our own bodies make it richer and deeper?
Similarly switching between hookiness and unease, ‘Why?’ opens with chirping, ribbiting wildlife but soon unfolds into a maelstrom of mewls and squawks taken from recordings looking at communication. We hear children in speech development studies, medical patients trying to speak with their larynxes removed, humans attempting communication with animals.
Bracketing these non-normative speech modes together may feel a little like exoticisation, but ‘Why?’ might as well be turning the question towards the listener. Without knowing how the music is made, are concerns like that relevant? Regardless, it’s a hectic, primal, rip-roaring good listen, and thinking of it in literal terms only shuts off the indescribable gut feelings and vibrant mental images the music provokes on its own.
Elsewhere, the ideas Matmos wrap their samplers around seem more straightforward, even as they leave you to fill in the gaps. ‘Mud-Dauber Wasp’ starts off as supposedly industrial techno until you realise that its snarling, pounding harshness all comes from the vicious acidic buzz of the titular insect. As it rockets up into a motorcar-like scream, this uncanny sense of the commonalities between animal and machine prods not only at our definition of ‘electronic’ music, but our understanding of life itself.
Then you get the epic title track, which over its thirteen-and-a-half minutes grows into a musique concrète audio play more reminiscent of Samuel Beckett than Squarepusher. Even if we’re set on seeking a narrative in this sonic jumble, if a surgical injection can sound like a detuned guitar, if a wasp can sound like a circular saw, then what are we hearing now?
This uncertainty doesn’t contract our imagination. It stretches our minds, as though we’re learning the grammatical rules of another language. But Matmos know that the imagination is where fear lives. The nagging, repeated ding-dong of a doorbell adds an extra layer of itchiness; it seems to pester us to answer it, prodding at an instinct impossible to satisfy.
Indeed, there is a thin line between mischievous fun and eerie darkness, and particularly towards the end of Return To Archive, Matmos take delight in crossing it. The dissonant clangs and plunks of ‘Lend Me Your Ears’ are chilling enough despite their tickly humour, but not quite as ominous as the droning and moaning which concludes the track.
You’d think another conceptual piece like ‘The Way Japanese Beetles Sound to a Rose’ would come as a comfort, but its swirling insectoid whirr is remarkably itchy and invasive, as if the sampled creatures are buzzing around in your ear canals. Even so, it’s entrancing enough that you scarcely note the artistic license at play.
Just as Thomas Nagel argued the impossibility of knowing what it is like to be a bat, in manipulating these recordings, maybe Matmos are cocking a sceptical eyebrow at conclusive attempts to interpret non-human perception. Or maybe it’s just a cracking piece of music.
Capping off the record, we get something even more intrusive. ‘Going to Sleep’ takes as its source a sleep-assistance recording, instructing you to relax your muscles and surrender to unconsciousness in a quavering monotone.
When a fathomless foghorn-like boom interrupts this soliloquy of self-care, the cold, sick dread it triggers swamps the wit of the juxtaposition. It turns the sleep tape’s reassuring intent into something foul, its insistence on relaxing you coming off as a hijacking. But fear not, for the instructions are finally smothered in a crackling, jagged gauze of scrambled noise. What a relief!
Whereas you could accuse some of Matmos’ previous efforts of being prescriptive, Return To Archive is a record you bring yourself to, as the duo leave you afloat on currents of clamour with nothing but your thoughts and feelings. The result is sure to prompt a flood of ideas and inspiration for the adventurous listener. More importantly, it’s freakish good fun.
This is an ode to the joys of playing with sound, but it doesn’t end there. Matmos, with wickedness glinting in their eyes and curiosity humming like mud-dauber wasps in their minds, want to play with you. Lend them your ears, all right, but brace yourself for what they’re planning to fill them with.
Return to Archive is out now via Smithsonian Folkways – stream or buy via Bandcamp
Find out more about Matmos on their official website
Review by Poppy Bristow
Photography by Farrah Skeiky