Atruly ambitious high-brow experiment, Matmos’s fifth album, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast, is remarkable for the respect that the avant-garde electronica duo, Drew Daniel and Martin C. Schmidt, pay to the idea that recorded music can sustain the same degree of academic scrutiny as serious literature. A collection of 10 ostensible “sound portraits” (complemented by 10 specially commissioned visual portraits from artists including Daniel Clowes and Jason Mecier), the album pays a peculiar sort of homage to 10 gay and lesbian figures of historical and pop-cultural importance, each of whom Daniel and Schmidt claim was somehow an influence on their own work.
In execution, the tracks aren’t strictly biographical exercises—Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers On A Train and the Thomas Ripley series, was fond of snails, so Matmos recorded the slight changes in pitch that resulted from several garden snails crawling across a field of lasers aimed at a light-sensitive theremin. That’s hardly the least Who Gets To Call It Art-baiting stunt Matmos attempts over the course of the album, but it will suffice here to raise the questions of whether Highsmith would feel moved by such tribute or, even more significantly, why anyone other than Highsmith, Daniel, and Schmidt should care one way or the other.
Ultimately, the problem with Beast (which takes its title from a line in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and is recited by Björk, among several others, throughout the album’s opening track) is that both its concept and its performance are so defined by their academic removes that it’s impenetrable. Larry Levan presided as DJ over New York’s cult-legendary Paradise Garage club for a decade and had an incalculable influence over post-disco dance music; “Stream And Sequins For Larry Levan” is a phenomenal dance track that combines elements of disco and funk with more modern elements of garage and electroclash. Along with the propulsive “Solo Buttons For Joe Meeks” a few songs later, it’s as close as Matmos has ever come to accessible, which counts for something, but the track in and of itself doesn’t make any statement about Levan, specifically, nor does it give any insight as to why he was important to Matmos.
Accessibility, though, has never been Matmos’s point—2001’s A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure EP used sounds recorded during surgical procedures as the foundations for its songs—and Beast largely stays true to form in that regard, what with Don Bolles’s burning Daniel with a cigarette on “Germs Burn for Darby Crash” and with Schmidt’s manipulating of a bovine uterus on “Tract For Valerie Solanas.” Again, it’s the how and the why that undo the album—namely, how or why even one of Matmos’s post-IDM electronica die-hard fans would make the connection between “fisting a dead cow” and “the woman who shot Andy Warhol” and come up with “tribute,” and to what possible benefit could they do so. As a work of art that’s meant to be a shared experience, Beast‘s concept backs itself into a corner before anyone can even lube-up an index finger.
Still, for all of the insular, inscrutable put-ons of Beast, it remains an endlessly fascinating piece of work, and there’s undeniably something in Matmos’s aesthetic—their willingness to incorporate bizarre, even grisly sound elements into their own style of “found poetry”—worthy of the highest respect. But, even armed with a cheat sheet from Wikipedia and a desire to figure out the significance of every last hair clipper and gunshot, the album never engages as anything more than an academic exercise. Its subjects may be people with colorful lives, but in telling their stories in this deliberately over-calculated way, Matmos has stripped them of their humanity. Admirable ambition or not, without any traces of genuine emotion and without more than a couple of genuine “dance” tracks on an electronic record, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast is the kind of thing that only an exceedingly limited demo would listen to voluntarily.