splendid > reviews > 10/13/2003
The Civil War

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Zealous Order of Candied Knights"

Buy me now
Matmos's latest is the product of medieval times and modern ages, a mix that works so well I'm surprised nobody else has thought of it yet. Structured in three acts, the disc reads as much like a good drama as it does a fine album. There's the setup, the exploration of theme, the tense buildup to the final showdown and even a bit of requisite humor to balance out the dire moments. It has the added bonus of holding up even when played in bits or out of order, fitting neatly into the script but not beholden to it.

The Civil War opens with "Regicide", both a fitting prologue and the kind of song that emphasizes the "cutting" in "cutting edge" -- parts of it are so sharp and confrontational that they actually hurt. "Zealous Order of Candied Knights" is the kind of squawky number that might prompt my downstairs neighbor to wonder what the hell I'm listening to up here, because it sure isn't music -- at least, not at the outset. But by the midpoint, when it's seamlessly meshing an English folk reveille and über-modern glitches and squeaks, it does such a good job of reimagining the sweep of battle that it leaves the shackles of definition behind. "YTTE" is a sinuous blend of peppy and funky, the kind of thing a biology major might shake her tailfeathers to.

Matmos also retain their rep for being sonic trailblazers. "Pelt and Holler" consists of sounds composed almost exclusively from the manipulation of a rabbit pelt, while their version of "Stars and Stripes Forever" is just screwy and self-deprecating enough to work, while still maintaining some semblance of pride. Included among the instruments are, according to the liner notes, a smoothie, a leather coat, a bicycle pump and "copy of Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy being dropped on the floor."

Might I suggest that you buy The Civil War on the basis of the previous sentence alone?

In addition to their audio tomfoolery, Matmos know how to apply the pressure. "For the Trees" is another lo-fi epic with just enough sass to make you want to storm a small castle, or at least an outpost. "Pelt and Holler" is as insidious as it gets, with numerous slurry, slimy, shambling noises army-crawling through the night under cover of a vintage synth beat. You can almost hear the sweat drip from the archers' brows as they wait for the groundborne onslaught they can hear coming but can't see.

Perhaps the crown jewel of the disc, "The Struggle Against Unreality Begins" isn't quite as trippy as its title suggests, but it certainly paints a picture of the horrors of war. Swathed in suspicion, apprehension and the cacophony of stringed instruments being strangled violently as horns squonk helplessly, bearing witness, "Struggle" is not only a natural follow-up to "Pelt", but it takes the theme a step further (and darker). If "Struggle" is the story's/album's climax, "For the Trees (Return)" is a fitting epilogue, spreading like sun across the scorched and scarred battlefield. Death may have taken the field that night, but hope lives on the morning after. And that, in addition to being a stupendously bombastic closing sentence from yours truly, is also a fitting summary of The Civil War -- one of the few discs I've encountered that not only attempts to be something more than a simple album, but succeeds.



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