A re-release of Matthew Herbert’s debut album is a convenient opportunity for a little history. The artist behind recent critic rave Scale (mine included) and Roisin Murphy’s Ruby Blue began as Wishmountain and then Radio Boy, dabbling in aleatoric composition and theoretical electronica, as a student of drama in the early 1990s. Now, I don’t really remember dance music in the mid ‘90s personally, but we do know from the history of the genre that this was an era of primitive techno, drum-n-bass, and breakbeat—an array of heavy, “macho” (as Herbert describes it) sounds. In his debut, 100 lbs, Herbert positioned himself opposite to this macho aesthetic. The record is light, and playfully but subtly alters tempo and developmental expectations. It’s no huge breakthrough, and, obscured by the haze of his subsequent achievements, seems quite understated. Still, the re-released album (and, more importantly, the co-packaged bonus disc) should be of more than passing interest to Herbert fans.
On first listen, you notice the similarities. “Pen” rattles with a strong metallic effect reminiscent of the kinds of sound the artist generates in his live show. “Friday They Dance”, one of the disc highlights, takes a laid-back house beat and messes around with switching and swooshing effects that hijack the genre-constraint. The influence on other artists is clear from the outset, too: without “Rude”‘s funky house bass there could be no turn-of-the-century Moloko, for instance. Throughout, the album leans on expansive, unhurried tracks in the 6-7-8 minute range; the dancefloor-length compositions are given the room to explore small ideas more or less fully.
It may be a relief to some of you to hear that the man was, at least ten years ago, somewhat fallible. His ideas age well enough, but some of the percussive effects seem flat in comparison with Herbert’s later melange of kitchen-sink-and-all production style, and some of these compositions lack the structural coherence of song form he’s brought to his latest work. “Take Me Back” may be the best example. The track relies too heavily on a more or less straight techno beat, and comes over as chamber-Herbert, with little flecks of ideas that a more experienced artist may have expanded and capitalized on. Percussive effects repeat themselves over the course of the disc: “Rude” and “Deeper” have an extremely similar beat, a funky house rhythm that’s perfectly fine but a little bland.
But the real revelation, and the reason to invest in this particular corner of Matthew Herbert’s back catalogue, is 100 lbs‘s bonus CD. It’s nothing short of astounding, revealing just how innovative this musician was right from the beginning. Comprised of eight b-sides, remixes, and rare tracks from the period of his debut, the disc runs through a proto-Herbertian treatment of the female vocal, of Herbert’s now-characteristic use of weird, wonderfully extraneous sound, and a few moments of thoroughly modern electronica. “Back to the Start Back Back Back” comes on like a clicked-up version of Hot Chip’s “Over and Over”. “No More Borders” melds the kind of crunchy electro those Ed Banger kids love with a minimal sense of what a track should do—no major epiphanies, no big melodic arcs—and emerges memorably the artist’s own. And “Fishcoteque” descends into a glorious electro swirl, all the while keeping a watery, pulsing disco beat at full swing. This is great stuff, demonstrating artistic foresight and meticulous production—more industrial, edgier than the debut itself, and hinting at the soon-to-emerge fascination with sultry femininity. For this disc alone, K7 deserves endless props.
Matthew Herbert’s beginnings as an aleatoric composer aren’t so evident when listening to 100 lbs, and his political leanings are less of a focus than on subsequent works. Despite this, for the sake of the bonus material and the opportunity to understand from where electronic music’s leading experimentalist emerged, this reissue offers a valuable insight: we all start at the bottom of a mountain.