The scuttlebutt on Supreme Balloon – the latest sack of double-click ear candy from electronic whizzes Matmos – is that there’s no highfalutin underlying concept. Since Matmos’ mid-’90s inception, professional and romantic cohorts Drew Daniel and MC Schmidt have tarted up their compositions with various left-field bric-a-brac: sounds of human skin burning, dogs barking, fat being extracted surgically, rats rattling cages, bovine organs being manipulated and so on. To experience 2001’s A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, ’03’s The Civil War or their last outing, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast, is to be riveted on both pop and contemplative levels, forced to consider music’s alternative textures. The emphasis on dissertation-ready tropes befits these hip academics: Daniel is an assistant English professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, while Schmidt works at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Balloon, however, is an exuberant celebration of dinky ol’ vintage synthesizers, a buoyant carnival holiday. On “Rainbow Flag,” their machines are luridly swank in a Star Trek/Jetsons way, revisiting a dusty mid-20th-century futurism that seems camp now. Tones pulse, whisper, poke and evaporate like cogs in some gyrating Willy Wonka contraption, implying tireless efficiency, swirling cosmic gases and conga-line merriment. Bouncier and more deliberate, “Polychords” presents a piping assembly-line strut, determined worker notes banging down neon tracks – until the proceedings suddenly descend into starched-out subterranean electro-funk, only to loop back to the tune’s earlier, unflappable pep. On “Exciter Lamp,” a tactical swarm of pops, clops and petulant plinks builds up to the sort of money shot video-gamers of a certain age will appreciate: a bleep-bloop geyser that saturates the sonic field, as if Schmidt and Daniel were playing Super Mario Brothers 3 and happened upon a magic mushroom that refused to quit granting coins and 1UPs.
There is a concept here, after all: giddiness, elation and ecstatic joy. A lumbering, quaint cover of “Les Folies Francaises,” by French composer Francois Couperin, punctures the mood, so to speak, but it’s over quickly.
If you need confirmation of Balloon’s subtle thesis, spend some time with the 20-minute-plus title track, an Epcot-sized pocket of gathering synth helium. Clipped phaser segues, teeter-tottering rushes, rippling beelines and tremulous quasars brush past one another over a substratum drone; it’s Matmos’ Stockhausen tribute and Krautrock salute wrapped up in a single knee-weakening package, a spiritual cousin to Sonic Youth’s classic “The Diamond Sea.” Daniel and Schmidt have always been interesting; now we know they’re equally capable of fun.