For English composer/producer Matthew Herbert, the context of the creative process is just as important as final musical products. This philosophical orientation has attracted the composer to musique concrète, a type of compositon featuring recordings of everyday sounds which are not usually used musically. Herbert uses this type of composition to imbue his work with metaphorical significance. On his previous album, Plat du Jour, for instance, Herbert staged a protest against the food industry by using sounds derived from food and its packaging. Such extreme experimentalism is not without its drawbacks, though, as Herbert himself noted in a BBC article.
“There have been times when the music has suffered because I am limiting myself,” says the composer.
If his latest effort, Scale, is any indication, Herbert is no longer limiting himself. In fact, what will probably strike most people who encounter the album is the expansiveness of its sonic scope. According to the liner notes, Herbert used 723 items to produce the sounds on Scale, including such unconventional “instruments” as fuel pumps and coffins. Even typically conventional instrumental parts were recorded in unorthodox ways. Drum parts for the album were recorded in such unusual settings as a cave, a car traveling 100 miles per hour, and a hot air balloon 2000 feet in the air.
Although “sexy” is not the first adjective most people would use to describe the sound of a fuel pump or a drum in a cave, it is an excellent word to capture the simmering soundscape of Scale. This sensual effect is the result of a number of musical factors. One factor is the sultry vocal contribution of Dani Siciliano, a long-time collaborator of Herbert. Another is the romantic sound of the string orchestras and big bands which continually surfaces throughout the album. Although these instrumental parts sound as though they were lifted from a 1970s disco album, they are in fact Herbert’s original creations, which were recorded in a variety of settings, including an Abbey Road studio and the composer’s own living room. The final and perhaps most significant contribution to Scale‘s sensual feel comes from Herbert’s intricately crafted beats. Complex without being distracting, the richly textured beats inject the songs with a propulsive, compulsively danceable energy.
Thanks to the buoyant physical energy of the music, the dark lyrical undercurrent on the album is easy to miss. Herbert’s anxiety is evidenced as early as the opening track, “Something Isn’t Right”, in which the lyrics, “there must be something wrong/ because I ain’t felt like this/ felt like this before”, reveal a sense of paranoia and discomfort. Although freely critical of modern society and government in interviews, Herbert uses his latest album to direct his paranoia towards his personal relationships. The album begins with hopeful songs like “Harmonise” and “We’re in Love”, which focus on desire and the thrill of companionship but ends on a dismal note, closing with songs like “These Feelings”, “Just Once”, and “Wrong”, which present the emotional devastation of a rejected lover.
Ultimately, Herbert presents his unsettled vision not to invite sympathy but to encourage action. “Don’t need an undertaker,” he writes on the second track, “be a mover and a shaker.” Herbert echoes this hope for social change with a comment in an interview on his website. “If we have the possibility of getting people to listen to new sounds or consider the artistic process differently,” he says, “then maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to elect such a hideous government.” Scale‘s ability to effect any such large-scale political change is dubious, and, honestly, inconsequential. Even if listeners aren’t motivated to vote differently by the album, they will be inspired to get up and dance. More importantly, though, on Scale, Herbert has created music that is thoroughly fresh and consistently challenging, and, in today’s culture, that feat alone is enough to earn the album the heartiest of recommendations.