Somnambule - Writing About Music

The Owl Project / Dick Slessig Combo / Matmos / Leafcutter John

6th June 2004, Scala

The Owl Project are the first to take the stage on this humid Sunday evening. The duo’s black, woolen balaclavas betray an admirable degree of commitment to their art given the prevailing weather. You’d think that such headgear might liberate the duo from their inhibitions, allowing them to go wild in some unforeseen way, but instead they spend the entire duration of their short set crouched down at the front of the stage in a sort of, er, owl-like way. As well as balaclavas, logs appear integral to the Owl’s performance: their laptops are sandwiched inside them in blithe disregard of the all too real threat of woodworm infiltration. As to The Owl Project’s music, there’s lots of scurrying, whooping and scuffling – are these verbatim reports from the front line of forest life? Who knows, they’re gone too quickly to draw any firm conclusion.

Next up are an unassuming trio on bass, drums and guitar who begin without announcement or fanfare – not until the end of their set is it discovered that they’re the Dick Slessig Combo from Los Angeles. Their first piece is an instrumental cover of Bobbie Gentry’s 1968 hit Ode To Billy Joe (thanks to Jan for the identification). The Combo tease a three minute pop song into a hypnotically wonderful 20 minutes. There’s something about the way they manage to stretch, twist and repeat the familiar melody that’s subtle, mesmeric and very engaging. The effect is akin to a hybrid of Steve Reich, bluegrass and Jackie O Motherfucker or an American backwoods version of Neu in motoric mode.

The Combo’s drummer and guitarist stick around to accompany Matmos for much of their set. Drew Daniel’s floppy hair, glasses and homemade-looking Civil War top, and M.C. Schmidt’s sober suit, white shirt and narrow black tie make the group instantly recognisable. They begin with a brief passage of underwater free improv: lots of gurgles and bubbles cause bemused looks. Things quickly pick up when a lovely piece of Professor Brainstorm house appears out of nowhere, jerry-built beats moving forward on a chassis that sounds as if it’s being cobbled together on the fly. Next up is an interlude comprised of Asian singsong voices like a flock of virtual songbirds subjected to sudden viral infections. Clinical, mutating beats kick in, quickly accelerate and grow scary as menacing atmospheres appear like the threat of a sudden storm. The whole thing brings to mind a soundclash between Darmstadt serialism, Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori and a particularly dystopian tech-house producer. All too soon the track’s over, M.C. Schmidt announces “a little experimental music with hurdygurdy” and Zealous Order Of Candied Knights, the second track from latest album, The Civil War, begins. The repetitive and distinctly medieval melody gets people dancing until it’s eventually obliterated by all manner of electronic warfare.

By this stage of proceedings it’s clear that Matmos in concert is a subtly different beast from Matmos in the studio: their sound is warmer, less clinical and more gloriously ragged. Their sonic palette is also necessarily a little less varied. The combined effect allows the listener to appreciate and focus more easily upon what the group are doing. This is in some contrast to Matmos’s albums which can at times feel a little too like laboratory experiments and at other times like a kid in a sweet shop eating too many sweets too quickly. The concert also prompts the question as to why there aren’t more electronica artists as playful and as experimental as Matmos. Perhaps it helps to be gay, San Franciscan polymaths. Or perhaps along with Matthew Herbert they’re the vanguard of a new wave of such hybridisers, who also have the courage to make oppositional political statements at this time of brazen international opportunism.

In the next gap between songs Schmidt delivers what seems nowadays to be an almost obligatory apology by visiting American musicians for the warmongering of their parent country. The video screen behind the group, which has thus far been used to project closeups of various music-making devices, now displays images of American Civil War soldiers and battlefields traversed in slow panning shots. Combined with Schmidt’s introduction, the imagery makes explicit the implied linkage between the subject of their most recent album and contemporary events. That their focus is the tragedy of war is further underlined by film of the Normandy beaches whose 60th anniversary is currently being commemorated. The final track of their all too short set is Y.T.T.E. whose gorgeous melody positively drips with pathos. The piece gradually becomes more and more attenuated until Schmidt is maintaining the rhythm with a single shaker, and then it gradually and gloriously rebuilds itself. Matmos exit stage left to much applause, but return for encores, the first of which is an enjoyable sort of grindcore/electro hoedown with added Forbidden Planet effects. The second and final encore turns out to be Kraftwerk’s Computer Love played wonderfully by the entire Dick Slessig Combo in the style of their earlier cover of Ode To Billy Joe, with accompaniment by Matmos on miscellaneous sound effects. On The Civil War Matmos hark back to the longlost ages of chivalry and Yankee folk spirit which, consciously or not, echoes Kraftwerk’s nostalgia for the spirit of pre-Holocaust modernism. In this light the cover is a delicious gesture piled with layers of meaning, playful irony and a big dollop of love. A little like Matmos themselves perhaps.

Next up is Leafcutter John looking for all the world like a junior officer on a cruise liner or a staff nurse who’s just finished his shift. Put this down to the epaulettes on his short-sleeved white shirt and the youthfulness of his demeanour. He begins his set by asking a member of the audience to manipulate a slinky and the resulting sound forms the basis of a lovely, madrigal-like piece of music. Throughout his set he fulfils the three ‘F’s: fearless, fragile and funny, but Matmos are a hard act to follow: Leafcutter John on his own can’t deliver the sense of group interaction and possibility that a group of musicians can provide. There also doesn’t seem to be a particularly remarkable improvement or significant variation on the studio recordings. At the end of the set it feels like time to go home. Dan Cartwright heroically stays on and reports that:

The Soft Pink Truth is Drew Daniel's camp disco/techno side project - and camp is the word - he bounces about in a skin-tight Black Flag t-shirt in front of a video projection of gay erotica, triggering samples and miming the words. Quite entertaining and danceable, but I don't suppose you'd want to take it any more seriously than it's intended.

Yaxu Paxo was a kind of minimalist crunchy techno - the performance being apparent from a projection of linux console windows with perl scripts being altered in real time eg: crackle => 170; Coded music. I liked that. Only on for about 15 minutes though.
Colin Buttimer
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