By: Charlie Gardner
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You may not have thought of this before, but shouldn’t your washing machine be near the top of your Best Friends’ list? Seriously… I mean, think how dependable it is: how it’s just as happy to live in the pokey confines or a dark cellar or a chilly garage as it is in the relative luxury of a kitchen or a bathroom; how it’s more than happy to help when you turn up at midnight with a week’s worth of washing; how you can even overload it on occasions with only the odd squeak of complaint. But most of all your washing machine is your best friend because it looks after all your dirty laundry (even those unholy, holey undies) and never gossips down the pub about it afterwards.
So, your washing machine really is your BFF. That said, would you make an album with it? Because, intriguingly, that’s what the experimental electronica duo of Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel (collectively known as Matmos) have done in Ultimate Care II, a Bold endeavour that while hardly producing Daz white results is worth a spin, nonetheless.
There’s something about the name Matmos that makes you think this project has been in their laundry basket of destiny for some time. It might (ironically) be a reference to the Tide of slime underneath Barberella’s planet, but for me it resonates with the spirit of the Technicolor American Laundromats of the Sixties, and forgotten washing powder brands like Omo and Hungry Enzyme, long since rinsed away from the supermarket shelves.
But it’s also a creation that in some ways naturally continues the process of “getting your subject to originate the music” that they started with their celebrated The Marriage of True Minds in 2013. But instead of using lengthy bouts of sensory deprivation and parapsychological suggestion to extract musical patterns from human volunteers, they’ve taken a shorter and rather more direct route with their trusty Whirlpool Ultimate Care II top loader.
In what amounts to a serious physical interrogation, they’ve pinched it, poked it, unscrewed its bits and bobs and slapped it around pretty hard (if the album art is to be believed) all in the name of sampling, you understand. Large quantities of water, though thankfully not waterboarding, were also involved, as were several friends playing good cop, bad cop… or should that be good cup, bad cup? The question is, after all that lathering and hand wringing, did they get the machine to sing…
You might not think so from the unpromising opening – the painful rasp of the programme dial followed by a lengthy hiss and gush of water suggests we might have nothing more than a mash-up of a Radio 4 FX record in store. But after this bookend, we settle down into a soundscape of the surreal and hyper-real hopes and dreams that comes from the washer’s very heart and soul.
Washing machines, it turns out, do not dream of electric sheets, but rather of taking a holiday in Africa; and as the tribal drumming steadily grows, the sweets notes of marimbas and kalimbas ebb and flow before a trumpeting drain-hose elephant stamps its authority.
From safari we segue to a space odyssey and a second section that is something of a galaxy quest, quite possibly the search for Ariel. It’s the music of the planets, with a score of glock-like high-frequency beeps and dings, strange pipe organs and noise and static that combines the very best Hitchiker’s Guide years of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop with Cliff Martinez’s startling score for The Knick.
In the sections that follow, over the next 23 minutes or so, we Surf through syncopated heart-beat like drums and DJ scratching jam-battle of squeaky belt-drives; a four-minute hydrophonic of churning water (that is as much ship’s propeller as it coloureds and synthetics); and a beautiful interlude of gamelan-like percussion that glides effortlessly into an insistent finale of industrial drumming and electronic chatter, before stopping, abruptly, with a stinging, programme-end buzzer.
So, after 38 minutes of drum and space (interestingly about the same length as the short cycle on my beloved Bosch Classic II –RIP) what comes out in the wash, if you get my Dreft? And the answer is, not as much as I’m sure Matmos were hoping for.
There’s a real problem with the dynamic of the piece. Taking the concept at face value, surely the finale should climax with the thrilling chase of acceleration and deacceleration in the final spin? But it’s inexplicably absent, and the coda is somewhat underwhelming as a result.
Then there’s the musical methodology. I’m all for sampling everyday objects to make melody (let’s face it, without a roller skate and some piano wire we wouldn’t have the TARDIS) but when the source sounds are so intensively post-processed, and require a sheaf of notes as long as a washing machine manual for context, you do wonder if the pre-wash setting was strictly necessary. In this case, the blurb proves to be its own self-prophecy: “Is this the conceptualist emperor’s new clothes?” it teases. And yes, it is… but it’s not that the emperor isn’t wearing a new suit, it’s just that it’s “Dry Clean Only”.
In fact, you feel from the very start that this is just too conceptual to work as a standalone album, and that’s a stain that remains despite repeated washings. It’s a playful diversion of a piece with moments of ingenuity, though not nearly as original or avant garde as it thinks it is, and lacking in any spiritual depth: play this in the dark with headphones on and you will enjoy it, but you won’t find the lost sock in the tumble dryer of oblivion.
It’s not quite a soundtrack, either, although, it undoubtedly benefits from accompanying L-inc’s ingenious CGI work, excerpts of which can be found on YouTube. However, as a live (STOMP-style?) performance piece, I can imagine it being incredibly engaging (it would make a fantastic late-night Prom). And sure enough, as bravely as someone mixing white T-shirts with black jeans on a hot wash, Matmos are dipping their toes in the water with a mini tour of the U.S. in March. Pretty extraordinary.
The programme selector has turned full circle and we’re back to where we started – your washing machine really is your Best Friend. And while I don’t think you’ll ever feel that much affection for Ultimate Care II, it does at least have some claim to being your “Persil friend” – defined by the Urban Dictionary as a slight acquaintance with a big heart.
And that, I think, just about sums up this album. I can’t pretend I’ll be taking it out of the airing cupboard again any time soon; but if the Matmos crew were to fly me out to the States to see them play it live, I’d happily take in their washing for the next six months…