Matthew Herbert was never among the insanely famous electronica stars of his era, yet he is undoubtedly responsible for some of the best, most appealing music the genre has ever seen. He envisioned new possibilities in sound recording, brought them to fruition, and made them sound amazing and beautiful. Between 1996 and 2006, Herbert was on fire, releasing record after record of sublime electronic listening music that charted his artistic path forward. And now, Herbert’s own Accidental Records has given ardent fans and newcomers a decade’s worth of essential Herbert albums, tracks, and intriguing extras in one gleaming package.
Herbert Complete begins at the beginning, with 27 tracks that have languished in defunct record label limbo for several years; my own fervent search for Herbert’s earliest music turned up exactly none of them. Many of these tracks — most of which fall strictly into the techno/house category –are unrefined, yet they all have a bodily appeal that is hard to deny, and you can hear Herbert’s heart and soul begin to shine through them. Some of the songs are pretty blocky and less than subtle (“Move It”, “Love the DJ”), and others are smooth and groovy (“Birds”, “Boots”, “Here Tonight”). A few tracks on Early Herbert are actually from a later period in his catalogue; “Wake Up”, featuring Herbert’s main vocal muse Dani Siciliano (more on her later), was released between Bodily Functions and Scale, and it sounds like it. These two discs do not house his standouts, but they provide a handy overview of his career and are a very nice surprise for the Herbert fanatic.
What comes next is a collection of all his proper albums under the Herbert name, beginning with 100 Lbs (1996), followed by Around the House (1998) and Bodily Functions (2001), and ending with Scale (2006). Each one of these albums arrives with a treasure trove of bonus tracks and remixes that provide hours upon hours of good listening. 100 Lbs, for the most part, echoes the chilly, mechanical techno sound showcased on Early Herbert, but he has some fun with the formula. The title “Oo Licky” comes from the phonetic pronunciation a Joao Gilberto vocal sample, culled from Gilberto’s sultry classic “The Girl from Ipanema”. “Rude” has a Blaxploitation feel, with sleazy guitar and bass and just a touch of fat Hammond B3 organ over an acoustic drum loop. Other notable tracks include the Motorbass remix of “Non-Stop”, which pours a creamy funk melody all over the dry original, and the sped-up, danceable version of “Oo Licky” by Strange Attractors.
On Around the House, Herbert made a gigantic leap forward, but in the most ironic of ways: by toning everything down to a seductive hush. Only traces of his techno roots remained, and in their place were mere suggestions, as if he understood that hints were sexier than the real thing. Herbert wasn’t the first to realize that an electronic artist can extract humanity from computer programs, but he — along with Boards of Canada — perfected it. He had gotten help from a few acoustic sources; items in his kitchen, items in his living room, and even his own body provided the sonic basis for most of these tracks. Yet it doesn’t play out like a kitschy, clangy hodgepodge; it sounds soulful and seamless, the bumping and pumping providing a blissfully light groove atop which the melodies can glide. His secret weapon, and the one who tied everything together, was Dani Siciliano, Herbert’s longtime partner in music as well as in life. She replaced Herbert’s use of samples with an erotic coo that never sounded too young or too salacious. It was as if Herbert had found the long-lost vocal twin of the music he was making. The disc — which arrives with lovely bonus tracks — is an embarrassment of riches that catalogues some of the most sublime electronic music ever put on a record, including “So Now…”, “Close to Me”, and the devastatingly beautiful “The Last Beat”.
Bodily Functions adopted a fuller and more languid sound than the record before it, and with a more obvious jazz influence. “I Know” and “About This Time Each Day” are essentially jazz piano pieces with just a dusting of electronic elements on top. True to the title, Herbert set out to document all that is squirmy, slick, and squishy about the human heart. There’s a certain rawness about Bodily Functions that suggests that Herbert made himself vulnerable and put his own heart on the chopping block for all to hear. Themes of closeness, distance, rejection, and reflection run through the record like ghosts. Balancing out the heaviness are some of Herbert’s most impeccably danceable beats, as on “Suddenly” and “It’s Only”. Bodily Functions seemed to predict Herbert and Siciliano’s eventual breakup almost too well. Partly for this reason, it can be a heady listen, and it effectively divided his fans, some of whom found it repellant rather than inviting. It’s a more difficult record than Around the House, but it blossoms the longer you spend with it, like the taciturn people that Herbert invokes.
Scale is the right title for Herbert’s 2006 full-length offering. Everything is bigger, more stuffed, more daring, just more. No longer confined to Earth, Herbert recorded some of the album in the air and underwater, doing things that are more appropriate for a stunt double than a musician. It’s the kind of record that needs to be heard live, in a magnificent venue like Carnegie Hall. Musically and thematically, Scale is all over the place. Subjects range from social politics to relationships to sex (check Siciliano’s beginning line in “Down”: “You want to, you want to, you want to put it in my…”, with ingenious use of bleeps). There’s a whole gamut of new instruments on display, and it seems as though all of them have been tuned to evoke a kind of awkwardness. It’s an oddly thrilling record, even as it sounds like Herbert is biting off more than he can chew; part of its appeal is how high Herbert sets his sights, especially after mastering the minimal.
Herbert Complete isn’t just notable for the wonderful music Herbert himself created, but also for the way that other artists have turned them into impeccable remixes that, in a few cases, rival the quality of the originals. I’d like to think that Herbert made his remixers into better musicians, by giving them such fantastic material to work with and enough latitude to do what they want with it. Recloose, for example, turns “Leave Me Now” into a jazz-house work of art that recalls a hot night between Jazzanova and Global Communication. Nobukazu Takemura has never sounded hipper as on his mix of “Addiction”, beginning with a languid version of his traditional CD-skip technique and ending with a fabulously addictive robo-workout. There are so many remixes to explore in this candy box — go ahead and pick your favorites.
Herbert Complete is not by any means an entire repository of Matthew Herbert’s musical contributions. You’d need about 20 CDs to cover that, including his controversial Plat du Jour, his albums with the Matthew Herbert Big Band, and his turns as Doctor Rockit and Wishmountain, to name just a few omissions. What we have here is Herbert’s essential material, and it’s still more music than a person can reasonably listen to in two weeks straight. It’s sort of appropriate that Herbert Complete stops at 2006, as if the future never happened. It encapsulates the important stuff and keeps it in a bubble, away from the fodder he experimented with over the years. Throw in a gorgeous mastering job by Mandy Parnell (what he does with Around the House is worth the price alone), and you have a compendium of timeless, legendary electronica — the best of the best.