Title: The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form
Label: Thrill Jockey
Genre: Electronic / Experimental
Released: August 21 2020
THE consuming flame: open exercises in group form
Matmos are a group that in recent years have blown up due to their unique and unconventional methods of creating music. If any conversation comes up about them, they’re immediately identified as “those guys who made an album sampling a bunch of plastic objects”, or maybe even more commonly; “aren’t they those guys who made an album with a washing machine?”. But despite these seemingly gimmicky concepts that Matmos have used to frame their work, each of the resulting projects has been excellent. However, in comparison to these previous records, Matmos’ latest album; “The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form” is expansive and maximalist. It feels almost inverse to their previous two albums. While “Ultimate Care II” and “Plastic Anniversary” were incredible albums that explored their respective concepts to the absolute fullest, they still remained confined to their self-imposed regulations. Instead, the concept for “The Consuming Flame” is far less restrictive: a collaborative effort involving 99 different collaborators with only a single guideline; a tempo of 99 BPM. It’s the combination of this underlying rule, along with the huge roster of featuring artists, that makes this album feel so vast and full of opportunity. And in its almost three-hour runtime, it utilizes this to tremendous effect.
Instantly, the sheer length of this album is a huge hurdle to jump. Not everyone has a spare three hours to spend. But luckily, despite this, “The Consuming Flame” almost never feels boring. And on top of this, the album is split into three far more digestible chunks, each running at about an hour in length. And within each of these sections, the record is thorough and systematic at shifting gears at the absolute-correct time. In all three hours of “The Consuming Flame”, it somehow never feels as if it’s re-treading ground. Instead, it seems as though its constantly evolving; shifting fluidly from style to style. It’s difficult to pinpoint exact moments that are highlights throughout, since because of the malleable and shifting nature of the album it feels more like listening to three one-hour movements rather than 44 individual tracks. But each of these arching sections have certain shifts in dynamic that are particularly notable. The absolutely breathtaking IDM track ‘No Concept’ occurs about halfway through the first movement, and transitions into the next song, ‘In the Shape of Beasts’, incredibly sleekly. There are also standout moments such as the vibrant and synthy ‘Sarabande’, and in particular the duo of tracks featuring Oneohtrix Point Never towards the end of the final section; ‘ Out of the Serpent’s Mouth’ and ‘Warm Opening’, leaving some of the album’s best content towards its conclusion.
But this album is far greater than its individual parts. In isolation, the tracks are good, but in the context of the rest of the record, they become excellent. “The Consuming Flame” feels like a living, growing thing as you listen to it from start to finish. Matmos’ incredible ability to weave their own style with so many other collaborators’ makes the album sound as if its literally evolving throughout its runtime. Sometimes the shifts are gradual, and other times they are unexpectedly jarring, but they almost always flow perfectly, delivering changes in dynamic at all the right moments. It creates a narrative with the contour of the music, despite having almost no lyrics throughout apart from some spoken word passages. And for this reason, it hardly ever loses the attention of the listener, even as it sits at a whopping 177 minutes.
While there are plenty of accessible moments on the record, it’s also filled with a multitude of extremely strange and eclectic sounds. Many of the songs have multiple shifts in texture and style within them; often yielding very weird, yet interesting, results. There are even some strange sampling choices within the record, including a repeated use of the iconic Michael Rosen “Noice” meme in the track ‘Nice Men in Stable Relationships’. And also notably the use of the Netflix logo soundbite in ‘Platformalism’, which actually seems to have been used as a condemnation of the company, as well as various others such as TikTok. Its one of the most vocal moments on the album, so it immediately stands out, but is also incredibly strange and surreal.
Another incredibly weird and hilarious moment on the album are the two tracks that conclude the first movement; ‘Cocktail Party How Glad Am I’ and ‘I’m Fine I’m Fine’. They start off as a smooth and jazzy soundscape of a cocktail party with text-to-speech voices awkwardly interacting with one-another, but they slowly devolve into a mess as each of the voices become more restless and the music becomes fuzzier. It then suddenly breaks into an extremely weird ragtime piano song as one of the voices says “I’m Fine” over and over again. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it even after relistening to it a few times, but it’s so strange that its really entertaining either way.
However, there are definitely some weaker moments here as well, which should certainly be addressed, especially in an album that demands so much from a listener. Although there aren’t necessarily any tracks that are noticeably weak, as dynamic shifts often occur midway through them, there are sections that don’t work as well as they could have. However, ‘Dancing Your Animal’, for example, probably could have been left on the drawing board. No offence to it specifically, since it has a pretty great transition into the next track, but it definitely doesn’t work by itself at all. On the whole, however, “The Consuming Flame” is somehow pretty smooth-sailing, even with its hefty length.
This album is extremely long, and works best when listened to in totality. So it’s definitely not going to be something that will appeal to a huge audience, nor will it be something that I will want to revisit in full any time soon. But It’s a really entertaining and engaging experience nonetheless, and it does an excellent job of integrating so many contrasting styles and genres into a vast and expansive piece of music. This is a pretty wonderful album. If you loved “Ultimate Care II” and “Plastic Anniversary”, this has the same eccentricity that made those two so entertaining, and you’ll most likely really enjoy this album. I’d highly recommend it despite the daunting runtime, and although I’m hoping for maybe a little more of a concentrated album from Matmos next, this was a great listen.
Reviewed by Layton Bryce - 24/08/2020