* Triple gatefold package with full color collages, and 60 x 90 cm poster * Matmos’ practice of creative constraint has made them one of the most consistently exciting acts in electronic music. The duo of M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel are well known for their long-standing practice of sampling unusual sound sources and experimenting with conceptual restrictions. As a couple in life and music for more than 25 years, Schmidt and Daniel have a particularly democratic approach to music making, each taking it in turns to come up with the framework or starting point for an album. The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises In Group Form was conceived by M.C. Schmidt, who made the decision to orient the record around a deceptively simple commitment. 99 different musicians were asked to contribute to the recording with only one instruction: they could play anything that they wanted, but the tempo of any rhythmic material had to be set at 99 beats per minute. The resulting album is a three-hour long assemblage that travels across a shifting kaleidoscope of genre, mood and density, all synchronized to a constant underlying tempo.
The Consuming Flame was composed through the social act of invitation, and the album’s 99 participants are, even for Matmos, wildly eclectic. Some are collaborators that have worked with Matmos for many years (J. Lesser, Jon “Wobbly” Leidecker, Mark Lightcap, Josh Quillen of So Percussion, Vicki Bennett) and some are near total strangers found through open calls on internet forums for contributions at 99 beats per minute. There are players from the conservatory-trained world of “new music” (Kate Soper, Bonnie Lander, Ashot Sarkissjan, Jennifer Walshe) and figures from the extreme music underground (Blake Harrison of Pig Destroyer, Kevin Gan Yuen of Sutekh Hexen, Terence Hannum of Locrian), as well as auteurs from the world of “noise” music (Twig Harper, Moth Cock, Bromp Treb, Id M Theft Able) as well as writers (Douglas Rushkoff, Colin Dickey) and conceptual artists (Heather Kapplow). There are distinguished alumni and contemporary luminaries of electronic music (Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma of Mouse on Mars, Daniel Lopatin, DeForrest Brown Jr., J. G. Thirlwell, Matthew Herbert, Rabit, Robin Stewart and Harry Wright of Giant Swan) and artists associated with indie rock and folk traditions (Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew of Yo La Tengo, Marisa Anderson). There are undergraduates who took M.C. Schmidt’s “Sound As Music” course during the final year of The San Francisco Art Institute’s existence. In honor of its fiercely independent tradition of outsider creativity, the album is dedicated to the memory of the now closed art school.
In keeping with this panoramic ambition, the album’s three hour long movements surge and flow across musical terrain, sometimes reaching into entirely new areas, and sometimes gesturing backwards to Matmos’ past recorded output and key influences: passages of banjo and mouth harp evoke the country and folk maneuvers of “The West”, motorik drumming and electric guitar condense into chugging Krautrock riffs, nostalgic pastoral synthesis suggests a slight return to “Supreme Balloon”, while the overall sound-collage-as-composition stratagem recalls Faust circa “The Faust Tapes”, Teo Macero’s collages of electric Miles, and classic Nurse With Wound. There are noisy and disorienting sections and oases of calm; at various points the mix drifts into field recordings gathered across the globe (children playing in a village in the Philippines, a bathroom in Uzbekistan, the drip of rainwater in Belarus, insects in Tokyo, a buzzing street light in Baltimore) as sound insistently relocates the listener’s frame of reference.
The concept seems simple: ask 99 potential collaborators to contribute sounds, with any rhythmic content pinned at 99 bpm. Yet the resultant 3-hour-long opus – meant to be absorbed in one sitting – is anything but straightforward. With The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form, Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt have produced their most ambitious and eclectic piece of work yet. Sampling a short list of the pair's collaborators might prepare folks for the wide-ranging and brilliant nature of this magnum opus. Daniel and Schmidt started by enlisting long-time pals such as J Lesser and Wobbly. Widening the circle a bit, they enlisted the skills of electronic contemporaries such as Max Tundra, Mouse on Mars, Rabit and DeForrest Brown, Jr. Throwing caution to the wind, they eschewed genre and asked Yo La Tengo, David Grubbs and John Elliott (of Emeralds) to join in.
Diving deep underground, the pair wrangled content from brain melting noise makers (Id M Theft Able), "new music" composers (Sarah Hennies), and even contemporary authors (Douglas Rushkoff). Like master puppeteers. Daniel and Schmidt sliced and diced the sounds they received, added more field recordings, samples and sounds, and worked the gelatinous mass of audio into The Consuming Flame. Listening to the entire recording from end to end in a single sitting is a daunting task, especially in this age of shrinking attention spans and the digital pachinko offered by the ever-present smartphone. But there are so many moments of clarity offered by The Consuming Flame that it's probably best for the listener to put their music player on repeat mode and allow it to be their life's soundtrack.
At turns groovy (the dank psych rock of "Adam's Apple"), cerebral (the faulty heartbeat and rubbery electronics of "Cold Open"), and downright confounding (the digital argumentation, whimsical honking and yodelling of "I'm Fine I'm Fine"), The Consuming Flame is Matmos at their finest. Daniel and Schmidt have taken the simplest of concepts and manipulated it into a gorgeous and grotesque beast of an album.
The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form appeared after a period of intensive and extensive collaboration for Matmos' Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt. It arrived during the same year as Daniel's Soft Pink Truth album Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase?, which boasted an impressive number of contributors that pales in comparison to this project. Matmos invited 99 musicians and artists to give them any type of recording they wanted, as long as it was at the tempo of 99 beats per minute. Daniel and Schmidt then combined these offerings into a massive, three-hour-long triptych that's as conceptually rigorous and engaging as anything they've created during their career. Instead of coaxing a wealth of tones out of a limited source -- like the plastic whose marvels and horrors they explored so brilliantly on their previous album, Plastic Anniversary -- these open exercises broaden the duo's sound and show how Matmos bridge various scenes on the cutting edge of art and music.
The Consuming Flame is fascinatingly egalitarian: While many of the artists who contributed are well-known in their fields, like Lesser, Wobbly, People Like Us, Yo La Tengo, Matthew Herbert, Daniel Lopatin, David Grubbs, and J.G. Thirlwell, many are not. Students of Schmidt's "Sound as Music" course at The San Francisco Art Institute and members of internet groups also chipped in, and their recordings are just as important to the work's success as a whole. The way Daniel and Schmidt piece everything together is pure Matmos; clever juxtapositions of sound and mood abound at every moment and throughout the entire album. Yet it often feels looser than some of their previous work, allowing them to wander seemingly without a map (although the meticulous chart that details who contributed and when proves otherwise) as field recordings from Tokyo, Belarus, and Baltimore echo the way the music traverses the playful, cerebral, and transporting aspects of their style. Even more impressively, The Consuming Flame's drifting never feels like dabbling.
The constant tempo adds an almost subliminal cohesion and a steady sense of motion to the drastic stylistic jumps of the first section, "A Doughnut in the Sky," which moves from motorik-driven rock to gamelan to finely chopped vocal collages; the hallucinatory explorations of the second section, "I'm on the Team"; and the cosmic electro-acoustic sweep of the third section, "Extraterrestrial Masters." For those willing to invest the time in it, getting lost in the record's vastness is immensely satisfying. In its own way, The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form is a fitting companion piece to Plastic Anniversary.
Like that album, it's a winning celebration of what makes Matmos special, and a tribute to the boundless possibilities of creativity -- especially when it's shared with others.
Matmos’ high-concept investigations take narrow parameters to gleefully absurd extremes. For last year’s Plastic Anniversary, the duo of Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt sourced every sound from cast-off plastic objects: vinyl LPs, riot shields, even a breast implant. On Ultimate Care II, they extended a career-long quest to find art in unlikely places by using a Whirlpool washing machine as the album’s sole musical instrument. And 2013’s The Marriage of True Minds examined the pair’s long creative and romantic partnership through a paranormal lens, using experiments in telepathy and ESP to generate musical raw material. The Consuming Flame spins a seemingly arbitrary number into one of their most elaborate conceits yet. Soliciting contributions from 99 different musicians, including themselves, Matmos wove the lot—squirrely electronic beats, post-rock excursions, dub interludes, freeform noise—into a mammoth, three-hour suite meant to be experienced in a single sitting. They only required their collaborators to pace their submissions at 99 beats per minute. The collaged-together results are fascinating, often enthralling, occasionally an uphill slog, and every bit as anarchic as their genesis would suggest.
Matmos have made collaboration a key part of their practice for years, but even by their typically open-armed standards, The Consuming Flame’s guest list is staggeringly diverse. Their accomplices include longtime friends (Wobbly, J. Lesser, People Like Us), electronic veterans (Mouse on Mars), indie titans (Yo La Tengo), improvisers (David Grubbs), noise rappers (clipping.), and an array of experimental electronic musicians (Rabit, Oneohtrix Point Never, DeForrest Brown, Jr.). There are metalheads, techno producers, opera singers, and acoustic fingerpickers. Even author Douglas Rushkoff turns up—doing, as best I can tell, some kind of electronically assisted impersonation of the Muppets’ Beaker. An accompanying poster lays out a detailed timeline of who is playing when—at the music’s busiest, as many as seven artists are in the mix—but it never tells us exactly what they are doing. Part of the fun is in trying to disentangle the strands of the music’s knottiest moments—or, conversely, figuring out why what looks, on paper, like a particularly crowded stretch might yield so few clues as to its constituent parts.
For all the variety of that list, The Consuming Flame is not an eclectic listen, exactly. This is not a supermarket where individual contributions sit neatly packaged and tidily arranged; it’s more like a bulk-foods store after a hurricane, with oatmeal and wild rice, dried apricots and seaweed, carob chips and detergent all swirled together, patterns giving way to chaos and back again, depending on how and where the upturned bins have landed.
Tee Grizzley on Meek Mill’s “Polo & Shell Tops”
Given the album’s length and density, it resists close reading; if there is an organizing logic here, it is not readily apparent, although brushed drums and choppy vocal effects provide thematic through lines, and the occasional recurring motif lends a sense of narrative cohesion. But the music often unspools with natural ease. During one particularly engaging passage early in CD1, “A Doughnut in the Sky,” shimmering drones give way to dubby post-rock that rises into a Loaded-style jam; a fade-out leads us into a field recording of children’s voices, and then a rapid succession of highly suggestive sonic images: the bonging of a broken grandfather clock; power sanders on the fritz; the ghost of Derek Bailey. Before long, a Diwali-like clapping rhythm is paired with prepared piano; toward the end of the first section, a burst of pure, uncut jazz fusion flashes out like a glimpse of an alternate universe.
It’s not always a pleasurable listen; I haven’t found it conducive to meditative morning walks or dinners with friends. There are stretches of monotony, and the tempo they have chosen can drag, trudging along at a sullen andante. But these moments of struggle are part of the point of the endeavor. Schmidt has compared the album, in its 178-minute surfeit, to a journey by car, and lord knows that even the most scintillating road trips have their doldrums. What might be most striking about The Consuming Flame is how perfectly it suits the peculiarities of the present moment, even though the whole project was in the can before the pandemic ever reared its ugly microbial head.
The project could scarcely be more prescient: Its central mode of remote collaboration is, suddenly, one of the principal ways that people work together. Its emotional states, veering from giddiness to abject boredom, are a mirror image of these past few months’ unfamiliar clockworks, their racing weeks and creeping hours. Like most Matmos albums, The Consuming Flame is about more than just its ostensible organizing principle. The number 99 is largely arbitrary, but the animating ideas are the same ones that have been at the heart of Matmos’ work all along: community, interdependence, the radical joy of creative play. And as this long year stretches on, infection curves unspooling against the X axis—not entirely unlike the multi-colored bars stretching across the album’s list of contributors—those same ideas are proving just as important in life as in art.