Published Dec 09, 2016The famed Western Front was the perfect venue in which to see this challenging triple bill, headlined by Matmos. The Front is a historic artist-run centre that has tirelessly promoted experimental music since 1973, in a city that eats itself every decade, so it's remarkable that it's still here in the wake of so many waves of gentrification.
You can palpably sense the history in the venue: the musty book smell that fires the neurons of nostalgia combined with the gravity of countless avant-garde happenings and, before that, the clandestine activities of the Knights of Pythias. The rows of embedded wooden theatre seats that line the great room, blending in with the high wood grain trim, has framed myriad rare, fleeting experiences, and now this, the final show in this year's WAVE EQUATION Electronic Music series.
Bully Fae hit the stage first, claiming the job of host. Defying gender norms, they (singular, as Fae prefers to avoid gendered pronouns) attacked the mic with cerebral drag poetry and some light Pussycat Dolls-esque hip-rolling moves over minimal, glitchy dancehall-tinged industrial beats triggered from iTunes. Pulling largely from their debut album, Defy a Thing to Be, Fae dabbled in the guttural excess of Death Grips but tempered it with the self-aware humour of an artist like Dinner. Fae's bit on changing their name to "Ass Face" had the crowd rolling in the aisles, but Bully ultimately left them with more to think about than laugh at.
If Bully Fae wasn't aggressive enough, Jeff Carey took that to the extreme. Tipping his rig forward so you could watch him slap around his joystick and gamer keypad, he blitzed sequences of gnarled distortion in a barrage of noise that one might imagine from a Merzbow remix of Venetian Snares, all set to the incessant, seizure-inducing assault of his walls of strobe lights. About half of the crowd watched his set with their eyes closed (out of necessity), but they remained doubtlessly affected by his intense, gestural improvisations. Unfortunately, his set ended abruptly when his computer crashed, but he rolled with it when he said, "There are days when the computer says that I'm too groovy, and it cuts me off."
Throughout the night, it was hard to ignore the elephant in the room… or, the washing machine in the middle of the stage, as it were. Between sets, M.C. Schmidt admitted to me that he'd forgotten to cover the machine up, and that having it exposed was as distracting as having George Clooney sitting onstage. That may seem like an overstatement, but when you saw and heard what Matmos did to and with it, it makes perfect sense.
With the core duo of Baltimore's Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt joined by Horse Lords drummer Sam Haberman, Matmos delivered a set of playful experimentalism that contrasted the provocative Billy Fae and challenging Jeff Carey. They presented a complete take on their one-track album, Ultimate Care II, which was released by Thrill Jockey in early 2016. The album earned its name: every sound was made by or extrapolated from the Whirlpool Ultimate Care II washing machine, as it was in this set.
The Whirlpool dictated the show's pace. It was timed out to around 40 minutes, starting with the ratchet-y selection of the small load/cold setting and ending with Daniel's rock countdown to the tub's final buzzer, with each of its cycles delineating their composition's evolving timbral distinctions.
As water began to fill the machine, so did visual abstractions from the laundry's point of view begin playing behind them. Schmidt begin to tweak the percolations with a Roland V-Synth, grabbing and twisting the droplets of sounds over its twin beam sensors. When the Whirlpool hit the rhythmic chug of its wash cycle, Schmidt touched his heart and smiled like a proud father. Then, along with Haberman, he began tapping his own beats on the side of the machine with his bare hands. This was only the beginning of their tactile exploration.
Schmidt and Haberman later massaged it with metal brushes, tickled it with sticks, scraped and splashed its insides, and wet it down so they could squeak their hands all over it, accentuated by Daniel's wide-screen, acousmatic treatment of similar but pre-recorded sounds.
For all the silliness of their sound source, they made one hell of a sophisticated presentation out of it. It's impossible to look at a washing machine the same way again after this. As ever, Matmos profoundly altered the perception of the common world like no one else can.