If you have spheksophobia, arachnophobia, or any other aversion to insects and many-legged creatures, you would do well to avoid Return to Archive, as the foundational material for much of this exquisitely weird album is recordings of bugs. Lots of bug sounds here, friend. While they sometimes can resemble musical instruments, for the most part, the bug sounds sound like bugs. Even for Matmos—a group that has had such vast and varied experience with using wildly unique found sounds as the basis for their records—Return to Archive is a pretty extreme experiment.
Barbican Sessions: MatmosBarbican Centre
The duo of Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt were granted carte blanche access by Folkways Records to their archive of non-musical material held at the Smithsonian Institution. While not as viscerally disturbing on a conceptual level as, say, the medical procedures sampled on A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, the fact that these two had the chance to pillage these collections for material and decided that “the bug stuff” would be a good organizing principle for this album means that there will be some people for whom Archive is a complete non-starter. For everyone else, these nine tracks provide a remarkable listening experience that’s far more dynamic and far-reaching than one may expect.
Of course, it’s not only insect noises here—although “The Way Japanese Beetles Sound to a Rose” and “Mud-Dauber Wasp” definitely get you sonically closer than you may want—but also clips of lectures, test tones, field recordings, and even the sounds of non-insect animals. All of this is exploded and reconfigured by Matmos into new works that range from dense, esoteric collagism to electronic music that verges on playful at times. They even finally get the chance to answer the question, “music or noise?” and the answer here, at least, is definitely the former. (Though there’s plenty of the latter, too.) While the title track runs more than 13 minutes and is almost cinematic in its presentation, building from glitchy ambience to avant-garde arrhythmia to weirdo soundscape, a cut like “Why?” verges on straight, four-on-the-floor electro, showing that there’s plenty that can be done with boxes of bug sounds, when put into the right hands.