Is Scale Matthew Herbert's masterpiece, or just his latest masterpiece?
Matthew Herbert, consistently better than critically acclaimed (I'd say, rather, critically adored), has apparently been making his masterpiece with every album since 2001's Bodily Functions. 2005's Plat du Jour, Herbert's meticulously assembled meditation on the politics of food, was a highly accomplished, if slightly academic, collage of industrial and organic food-sounds. But for me, it was his contribution to Ruby Blue, veteran Irish singer Roisin Murphy's magnificent solo debut from last year, that was the high point. That song "Ramalama (Bang Bang)" had the sound of the year, a magnificently squelchy beat. (This year's leading candidate? Probably Camille's raspberry-rhythm "Ta Douleur.")
The CD booklet for Scale contains 635 tiny photographs of objects used in the recording of the album – including seven mobile phones (one Blackberry); six coffins; 12 birds; and an answering machine. The story of that answering machine is this: in November of last year, Herbert solicited his fans for a sound, of anything (he thanks everyone, except the threatening message he received from Australia). Somehow he took all these 177 sounds and used each of them on just one track, "Just Once". That that track sounds complete, a jazzy electronic pop ballad – well, let's just call it a Herbertian triumph.
If you read the small print on the disc itself, it says "almost written according to the rules of PCCOM." Personal Contract for the Composition Of Music (PCCOM) is Matthew Herbert's self-imposed manifesto, prohibiting the use of samples of other artists; prohibiting drum machines; prohibiting keyboard presets. And somehow this integrity-driven process, combined with Herbert's own compositional ideas, results in electronic compositions with true soul.
What the Roisin Murphy collaboration taught Herbert was the value of song-based, rather than larger-scale electronic, compositions. The challenge of compressing and containing his exploding innovation into a three- or four-minute song has resulted in pieces that nudge perfection. Indeed, a few of the songs on Scale could well have been included on Ruby Blue, Murphy's husky voice replaced with that of Herbert's long-time collaborator Dani Siciliano. In both cases, jazz/big band influences are quite prominent. On "The Movers and the Shakers", there's a familiar, trombone-accented chorus, with the words 'movers' and 'shakers' themselves becoming an effective rhythmic trope. On "Harmonize", with its inverted "up and down" refrain, we get an intricate, clockwork-electronic, perpetual motion swirling through the background.
Elsewhere, Scale finds Herbert in more of an innovative vein, incorporating sounds and unusual recording environments. "Like A Moving Train" has drums recorded in a hot air balloon; "Harmonize", in a car going at 100 miles an hour. You can actually watch videos of these sessions at Matthew Herbert's website. But these gimmicks are always employed within the service of the song, never overwhelming it.
There is an element of musical theatre humming around the edges of these songs. You can hear it in the chorus of "Moving Like A Train", though it's somewhat veiled by a luxurious chord change; also in the cartoon-soundtrack opening to "Movie Star". The opening track, "Something Isn't Right", combines Jamie Lidell-like vocals with a choppy, repeated electric piano accompaniment and orchestral background. Though it's not overt, there's a suggestion of theatricality, of a point slightly over-emphasized. This is the only thing on Scale that could prove a barrier for some listeners – but then, that's always been an element of Herbert's music.
There's a political subtext to this album that hovers in the lyrics and is supported, but never overwhelmingly, by the music. But as to how much you let it affect the experience of listening to Scale, I'll leave that to you, because these songs are more pop than political. Or rather, their politicism is woven so masterfully into the lush electronic pop medium that you're never coerced into consideration of any one issue (though there are plenty of hints dropped throughout the record's 11 songs).
So is Scale Herbert's masterpiece? I think he's shown us all by now, he's capable of many more than just one.