More like a portable gallery installation than a mere album, Matmos' The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast is a collection of fascinating, fractured audio and visual portraits of ten prominent gay and lesbian figures, among them writers, philosophers, filmmakers, and musicians. The previous two Matmos albums kept the music closely tied to the concepts they explored, with surgical sounds making up A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure and The Civil War immersed in medieval music and American folk. The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast, however, loosely holds together very different tracks that fuse art, history, and politics as they chop and manipulate sounds that include a cow's reproductive tract and styles of music ranging from surf to power electronics.
Similarly, Matmos' approaches to their portraits span photograph-like detail and literalism to highly abstract smears and splashes of sound. "Roses and Teeth for Ludwig Wittgenstein" is more on the literal side: beginning with dried-roses-and-wisdom-teeth percussion, the track builds to include samples of beaver, shark and goat teeth, mooing cows, and honking geese as Laetitia Sonami, Björk, and M.C. Schmidt's brother Werner recite a passage from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. At the other end of the spectrum is "Semen Song for James Bidgood," where Antony's vocals and Zeena Parkins' harp are looped and layered upon each other in an impressionistic, sensual homage to the director of Pink Narcissus. The album's accompanying visual artwork is just as wide-ranging, with Daniel Clowes turning in a creepy-comical caricature to go along with the porn-funk of "Public Sex for Boyd McDonald." Jason Mecier contributes a snail shell, cigarette butts, and twigs likeness of novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose tense, jazzy audio portrait deftly captures the danger and intrigue of stories like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Matmos themselves have always been exceptionally good storytellers in their music, which keeps The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast from being a purely academic/experimental work. "Solo Buttons for Joe Meek" is a witty update of the space-surf the tormented producer concocted in his apartment recording studio; the way the naïvely twangy guitar is intercut with sawing strings (courtesy of the Kronos Quartet) and the way the song keeps short circuiting makes it an inspired expression of his creativity and turmoil. Meanwhile, on the comically bloated and regal "Banquet for King Ludwig II of Bavaria" (based on an incident in which the king had dinner served to his favorite horse in his castle's Hall of Mirrors), it's clear something is very wrong even before the dishes start breaking and Maja Ratkje's soprano turns into a scream. Songs like these and the brilliantly warped disco of "Steam and Sequins for Larry Levan" -- which may be the most accessible track Matmos has done yet -- show that as fascinating as the concepts and processes behind The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast are, the album's inventive sounds can be enjoyed without having to know anything about them.
Just as Wittgenstein found a way to explain the title's seemingly absurd notion ("Why, suppose one were to say: the cow chews its food and then dungs the rose with it, so the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast") Matmos seeks unique ways of making connections -- and of course, music -- that aren't obvious. Though The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast's fractured nature makes it a somewhat daunting listen at first, in the end, its portraits end up becoming a self-portrait of Matmos, and it's a dazzling mosaic of sounds, ideas, and history. Even if it's not as cohesive as their two previous albums, it's some of their best (and certainly most ambitious) work.