Despite his continued success, Matthew Herbert presents himself as very much a musicians’ musician. Certainly, within the cloistered extremes of the electronic music world he is one of the most widely-imitated and well-respected figures alive today. His work, both alone and in conjunction with his wife and frequent collaborator Dani Siciliano, is persistently and convincingly among the most interesting produced in any genre. That he manages to retain such a high standard of quality in the face of an extremely prolific release schedule is all the more amazing, especially considering the cyclical nature of the contemporary dance music world. Herbert has never really gone out of fashion, and when you examine the piles of carcasses which litter the alleys and byways of recent electronic music history, that is an extraordinary achievement in and of itself.
But part and parcel with his prolific nature is the fact that he keeps on moving forward. Who would have thought his big-band album would be as good as it was? A concept album based on food? In conversation with Herbert last year for this site he reaffirmed his ambitions while paradoxically remaining humble in the face of continually rising musical stakes. More than merely making a big band album, he wanted to master the logistics necessary to tour with a big band; it wasn’t enough to produce some of the best electronic music in the world, he wants to move into producing for others as well (Radiohead and Lil Kim being just two of the names that popped off the top of his head). The challenge seems to him ample enough reason for any new initiative. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that Herbert has also done his fair share of soundtrack recordings — it’s really only a surprise that he hasn’t done more work in this vein, considering the restless nature of his muse.
Which brings us to the disc at hand, the aptly-titled Score. (Album titles are one realm where Herbert evinces less-than-average creativity — Scale was named for the musical scale; Bodily Functions for the bodily functions sampled in the making of that album; Around the House was, um, a house album.) Sadly, for the first time in memory, a Herbert album adds up to far less than the sum of its parts. Soundtrack albums have a pretty dire track record in pop music, allowing musicians to stretch their muscles without the potential negative consequences concomitant to a pop star recording an album of instrumental passages under his own name. At their best, the music is still subordinate to a film and rarely effective outside the context of said film (Bodysongs); at the worst, well, anyone remember Toto’s soundtrack for Dune?
The worst thing that can be said about Score is that the album is damningly inconsequential. The pieces run the gamut from fairly sedate 1940s big band jazz vamps produced for the 2001 film Le Defi (these selections include a just slightly mutated interpretation of “Singing In The Rain” seemingly tailor-made for modern dance ensemble), to the wholly acoustic pieces produced (but rejected) for this year’s Manolete, as well more conventionally electronic compositions taken from short pieces ranging as far back as 1997’s Nicotine. One of the more interesting pieces is a ten-minute long sound collage assembled in 2006 for the Bonachela Dance Company entitled “Rondevous”. It’s quiet and relatively straightforward, but it’s still an interesting piece, consistent of multiple shifting percussive patterns set against a basic one-two shuffle that betrays the piece’s origins as accompaniment for dance. Of all the pieces here it’s the only one that really impresses in the same way that those of us who follow Herbert’s work are used to being impressed.
As it is, there’s nothing really bad here, but there’s also precious little that strikes the listener with the same ferocious impact of Herbert’s customary solo work. In the context of the films for which these pieces were produced, I am certain that they are effective and even insightful contributions to their narratives; but on their own, they are mostly limpid exercises in form and tone. It is in a filmmakers interest to seek out music that compliments without overshadowing the action onscreen — when was the last time you saw a film and walked away thinking, “man, that was one impressive score?” Herbert’s Score is hardly an embarrassment, but an inessential appendix to his storied career all the same.