A delicate balance of the danceable and the cerebral from the inimitable Matthew Herbert
Matthew Herbert’s first release of dancefloor-oriented music in nine years under the name Herbert opens like a flood of sunshine with four seriously confident, upbeat, kinetic cuts of superlative deep house and disco. It is, without wishing to sound cliched, as though he had never been away.
Largely eschewing the conceptualism for which he has become famous in recent years, this is a very strong contender for your favourite summer album of 2015, being half supremely soulful and intelligent house music, half contemplative ambience. He explains this as a kind of call to arms: “At a time when inequality is rising to unprecedented extremes and when the system we have created is designed to destroy rather than nurture, music’s propensity to noodle inconclusively can seem unhelpful at best.”
In the same breath, though, Herbert claims he wants to make music that “tenderises and engulfs” and find a middle ground between the pro-active and the immersive and atmospheric. ‘The Shakes’ spans these two polarities well, initially focusing on the “get up and dance” clarion call to do something upon listening to it – as stated in ‘Smart’, “You might want to take some action”. Maybe he’s hoping his record will indeed make us take to the streets in outrage at our unequal world.
‘Smart’ is the stand-out dance number of the set. With a highly contagious melody, an almost Latinate disco feel, and fanfares of brass, it’s reminiscent of Basement Jaxx’s ‘Samba Magic’ in its sheer exuberance. It’s a real summer anthem. In contrast to this comes the more sedentary, or horizontal even, half of the tracklist. ‘Silence’, which features the sweetest vocal of Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne (who also sings on ‘Smart’), is a particular highlight here. There are echoes of John Cage in the title and in the washes of sound in the background, as lulling as amniotic fluid.
These descriptions might make Herbert sound like a regular electronic talent and interpreter of genre – which he is not. For while he may have largely put aside his conceptual leanings on ‘The Shakes’, what perhaps has not been conveyed so far is his original use of sound, texture and timbre. Herbert is no straight-up purveyor of deep house: there is always an original flourish to his creations, whether it’s using an industrial backdrop to the soulful vocals of Ade Omotayo on ‘Battle’, or the sounds of used bullets and shells bought from eBay employed on ‘Safety’, or utilising samples recorded at protest marches in the UK on ‘Strong’.
Matthew Herbert is a true one-off. We need his contribution to dance music at the very least to make us think as well as move our feet.