Herbert Complete is a five disc, 130 track compilation that collects everything experimental house genius Matthew Herbert has ever done. Except, it doesn’t. This doesn’t include any of the work he’s put out under his full name, nor anything by alter egos Doctor Rockit, Radio Boy or from the Matthew Herbert Big Band. This is “just” his more straight up house stuff. Except, it isn’t. This is wilfully the least “straight up” house music one could probably achieve, and getting one’s head around all 13 hours of it is a task that’s nearly driven me to madness. All I can really conclude at the end of it, given the stuff that’s contained herein and the wealth of other stuff that isn’t, is that Matthew Herbert is a frightfully busy, startlingly talented man.
Diving straight in to more than half a day’s worth of his music with little prior knowledge is certainly not the best way to become accustomed to Matthew Herbert’s craft, but Herbert Complete seems to be more concerned with delighting those who are already fans than winning over new ones. The first two discs in the set, titled Early Herbert, are the biggest treat for existing aficionados, collecting as they do a wealth of out of print 12”s from the start of what would become a fascinating career. These might not be the most daring of entries in his catalogue (though you won’t have to wait long for that), but they certainly demonstrate that despite his career going in every imaginable direction since their making, his grounding in and understanding of purer, more recognisable house music was remarkably strong. Though they’re early works, they’re certainly not the sound of an artist finding his feet, and their having been made available as part of this set will most likely be the reason many folks decide to fork out for it.
With the stage now set, Herbert went about dazzling his listeners with one of the more interesting career arcs in recent electronic music. It started relatively conventionally with 1996’s 100 lbs, a breezy but forceful collection of tunes originally released as a series of singles, but nonetheless possessing enough similarities in tone and direction to hang together remarkably well as a front-to-back record. At this point, the term “house” still fits the music pretty neatly, but as evidenced by the two discs that accompany it, (one of bonus material from the album’s sessions, and another of remixes from the likes of Charles Webster and Sensory Elements), Herbert’s vision was clearly that bit wider than that of his contemporaries. As with all the albums in this set, the accompanying material expands on the record in a way that’s almost too exhaustive, but hey, you certainly feel like you get to know the LP.
For the most part, 100 lbs saw Matthew Herbert following the rules, though it has an irrepressible, playful nature that suggested he wouldn’t be particularly interested in doing that for long. His first foray away from convention comes in the form of 1998’s collaboration with Dani Sicilano, Around The House, which, as the title suggests, saw him using samples of the sounds of things in his own home as the basis for much of the record’s rhythmic and melodic tapestry (his records’ titles, as you might gather by now, are nothing if not explanatory). Knowing this, you’re tempted to scratch your head as it plays, wondering where each and every sound came from – perhaps that’s Herbert opening a can of beans, or Sicilano flushing the loo? – but I found it better to ignore the origins of the noises and simply revel in them; their warmth, cheekiness, their ever present funk. Though Herbert is famous for issuing a manifesto of sorts that frowned upon conventional sampling methods, there was clearly something else that governed his music making with more force – the idea that, no matter how irregular your methods, all the theorising is worth nothing if the resulting music doesn’t make your feet move.
Around The House, though an interesting and enjoyable record, suffers a little however from seeming a bit too concerned with sounds as opposed to songs. On its follow up, the acknowledged classic Bodily Functions (read the title, and I’ll leave you to guess what sounds he’s sampling for inspiration on this one), his interest in both is heightened, and the result is arguably his finest album. This is remarkably inventive dance music, as capable of delighting those who want to appreciate it on a purely technical, overly geeky level as it is those who really couldn’t care less about the process behind how these lovely tunes came to be, and would rather just revel in the fact that they came to be at all. Dance music, yes, but “house” by this point seems a term that does the work a disservice – this is warmer, more organic, more experimental certainly than most house music you’ll have heard elsewhere. And probably better, too. The accompanying remix disc also boasts some of the compilation’s most impressive names, the likes of DJ Koze, Jamie Lidell and Matmos clearly being as enraptured with Bodily Functions as the music press were at the time. And, despite knowing the sources of most of the record’s sounds, I’m pleased to report I didn’t spot one fart noise anywhere.
If it’s a stretch to call Bodily Functions ”house”, its 2006 follow-up Scale is certainly anything but. By this point, Matthew Herbert had moved so far away from the genre that it’s difficult to reconcile the fact that the very same person was responsible for the mechanical grooves and swathes of electronic sound on Early Herbert and 100 lbs. This record is awash with soulful vocals, analog instrumentation and addictive melodies, brought to life with a combination of over 600 instruments and objects such as gas pumps and a coffin (to be honest, I didn’t spot the coffin) all painstakingly laid to tape at Abbey Road Studios (the sessions are, of course, featured on their own mildly fascinating bonus disc). It’s Herbert at his catchiest, friendliest and, despite the characteristically convoluted procedures that led to its creation, actually probably his most normal sounding, delivering an album largely full of lovely old songs rather than pieces.
Of course, the work of an experimental house musician turned compositional petrol pump whizz kid is not going to be music for everyone. It’s highly likely that many people will find something to love amidst Complete Herbert, but totally loathe other aspects – it certainly does get lost in itself in places, and has a tendency towards “chill out vibes” that I for one can’t quite reconcile with. But what you absolutely cannot accuse it of is a lack of vision, invention, or breadth. These are things it has in spades, but crucially, never at the expense of a tune.