Supreme Balloon may be the first album of electronic music in decades that is remarkable for the musicians’ use of synthesizers. Where San Franciscans Drew Daniel and MC Schmidt sampled and sequenced sounds sourced from medical procedures and odd sonic environments on previous albums, here they apply their craft to decades-old offerings from Roland, Moog, Waldorf, and other keyboard manufacturers.
Unless the listener is a synthesizer enthusiast, one key aspect of listening to Matmos’s last few records is lost here: the curiosity about their sources. It was fun to learn what it sounds like when body fat squelches in a tube, when a guitar resonates in a sewer, when a cigarette is extinguished on Daniel’s arm, and also how Matmos would skew these sounds and arrange them with conventional instruments to make songs.
Yet the compositions still bear Matmos’s mark. The sounds have changed, but Daniel and Schmidt still treat them with care and fascination. That can be a good thing, as many of them are wacky and seldom heard on modern records. They mostly sit unembellished in simple arrangements. “Polychords” and Les Folies Francaises” could even be performed by keyboard trio or soloist, respectively.
The 24-minute title track is more ambitious: dozens of unusual timbres phase in and out. Some form steady basslines, some occupy the background for a few seconds every couple minutes, and some debut in the spotlight for a brief solo, never to be heard again. Matmos transitions from section to section with guile in a way that rock bands that attempt 24-minute pieces seldom do, despite their more constant instrumentation. But although “Supreme Balloon” is an interesting process, it’s not a rewarding listen. The sections flow smoothly, but they do not build on one another toward any emotional end. Nor do the numerous timbres achieve good interplay. The piece would be a great soundtrack for mitosis, another complex and interesting process by which most listeners are probably unmoved.
Matmos retain their sense of humor, as one would expect on an album with this title. “Rainbow Flag” is as playful as anything they’ve recorded. “Mister Mouth” and parts of several other tracks could easily accompany various cartoon industrial processes. “Les Folies Francaises,” a Switched-On Bach-style arrangement of the popular baroque melody, delivers a better combination of goofiness and solemnity than anything in its class to date
But in general, the music is too simple. Most of it comes across as an exercise in using vintage keyboards. It’s a listenable exercise, but still an exercise. Interesting sounds can’t carry music by themselves. The last piece might be the most successful. “Cloudhopper,” although the second-shortest piece, seems to find the duo playing the instruments with more patience than elsewhere on the album. Mid-range voices form vague melodies while various high-register parts shimmer in and out of the frame. Like the rest of Supreme Balloon, it’s a nice exposition of its instruments. But it also sounds not just like a demo or novelty, but a piece of music.