The idiosyncratic Herbert completes his "One" trilogy with an album charting the life of a pig. Occasionally clinical but never gimmicky or exploitative, it's a thoughtful examination of our own consumption at a time when consumption has become something of a pivotal issue. Eccentrics rejoice!
Regardless of the music, this record couldn't have come out at a better time. Worldwide protests and righteous anger are increasing, and a humble Brit puts out an album culled from the lifespan of a pig. Sounds of the pig eating, squealing, and, of course, grunting are capped-off with the inevitable: consumption; muffled giggles, and lips smacking as people happily chew into the meat. In accordance with Matthew Herbert's personal manifesto, every track on One Pig is comprised of sounds made by or in association with the pig -- one song (song?) makes use of a bone saw as the rhythm, another of the pig's blood being dripped from a bucket. But the record isn't a collection of gimmickry; rather, it's a well-needed reality-check on our own behavior in terms of how we acknowledge -- or fail to acknowledge -- our own consumption, and the consequences of something which many of us might do every day. That's rather inspiring, wouldn't you say?
Herbert wasn't actually allowed to record -- or even be present -- at the pig's death, and that's really the most disturbing thing: a first-world country (the UK, in this case) where the general public is not able to witness a step in what is essentially their own intake. Even if you're neither British nor vegetarian (and I'm neither), it's an offensive prospect: The animal -- and your food -- is merely product, the origins of which you're supposed to acknowledge...but never acknowledge enough so that you might actually care about the system. Pretty disturbing, too, how an "animal rights" organization would actually condemn this project, with PETA putting the burden of "cruelty" on Herbert himself and never inquiring about said project's actual intent.
(For all the misguided furor, the irony is that the pig ended up being killed at 25 weeks, rather than the standard 20 afforded to an industrial-raised beast; Herbert made sure to explain this, taking care to mention that he didn't personally kill the pig. I swear, sometimes this world is further up its own ass than a pig eating a hot dog.)
So how's the music? Well, it's generally compelling... if at times insufferably clinical. The sounds themselves -- pig or otherwise -- will be interesting from the get-go for anybody approaching this material in the first place, and though I don't know how the album would play for somebody unfamiliar with its process, the progressively erratic rhythms and timbres become discernibly dramatic. That's right, dramatic.
If you're wondering whether you'll be able to easily look past the concept of One Pig and dig the music as escapism... that's a little dodgier. Personally, I found that whenever I listened to the record fully through, the squeals and screeches did eventually secede to the surprising bump-n-grind that secretly pervades so many of these tracks. Squeals started to sound like tea kettles, or like car tires screeching in slow-mo; "October" even manages to overwhelm the pig's low rumbles and belches with a sad, gorgeous, twilit synth drift which seems to densen without really getting any denser.
On the other hand, though, you might not be able to so easily overlook facets of the record if you're always searching for the pig. This album by its very design works at least partially on dread, which is a method that I (and many others, I'd think) usually hate. Pauline Kael once mentioned in an interview how she couldn't stand the movie Boys Don't Cry because the film's tone builds so cathartically toward the inevitable rape-murder scene that you shift uncomfortably instead of getting as involved with the characters as you could be. There's something of that same approach in One Pig: one track that takes its beat from a sample of the pig's severed head being dropped onto a table, another from a sad "dialogue" between the pig and a mooing cow in the next stable. And "November" ends in a batshit-crazy section which sounds like a scream caught in an industrial whirlpool -- the harsh squeals and defeated roars might well approximate a pig's worst nightmare in auditory form. It may also unsettle you to know that a few sounds are made through the use of a "blood organ". (It's a series of pumps which draw blood up and then…y'know what; just watch the "making-of" video.
That's pretty unapproachable stuff, but Herbert wisely doesn't turn his project into some hackneyed journey into the avant-garde. The bassline of "September", carried in thuds, is a downright conventional one to get the album moving, but it gains effectiveness through the distant squeals and through its own tone; it's bleak, even dystopian. Sounds of saws cutting through bone in "February" are supplanted by swoops of strobe-like flapping; "December" uses a sample of a tractor against the pig's wheezing to help with an anxious, wintry string churn that makes the track seem as though it's racing against something unstoppable. And in "August 2010", the preparation of the meat, you can almost see cameras cutting back and forth in a kitchen as knives are sharpened and frying pans sizzle. It's things like this which render the number at the bottom of this page somewhat irrelevant: the album's concept and approach are clearly ingenious; the cogency of the music itself, somewhat less so.
Herbert's long been a good hook constructionist, going back more than 10 years to his Around the House record. But in the end, his albums are all about how well the sounds come at you -- and from what distance the listener approaches them. With exceptions, his sonics aren't always enveloping, nor even particularly atmospheric; it sometimes feels more like you're looking in at something than experiencing it in the fray. This may be why his full-lengths can seem so clinical in parts, and though One Pig is slightly more of an exception than usual, it's telling that its longest track is the one that merely sets up the premise, comprised almost entirely of low breathing and machine-gunned grunts. It's telling because, despite the album's sonic qualities -- plentiful though they are -- the statement is ultimately more stirring than the sound.
The record ends with Herbert singing a sunny acoustic ode to the dead pig in the animal's old stable. This might sound completely ridiculous to some, but it plays quite oppositely: Coming after the album's cold industrialism and nightmarish abrasion -- not to mention the aforementioned dread inherent in the process itself -- the elegy feels both touching and expressive, affirming our capacity for self-reflection...when and if we choose to use it. "A simple life is all we need", he sings. "Enough to multiply, magnify, dignify each day". Did I mention that this is great, great timing?