With his new album Scale, restless musical innovator MATTHEW HERBERT has produced his most accessible and mellifluous song collection to date. In just a decade as a recording artist, Herbert has become Britain's most inventive and prolific electronic composer, recording under his own name as well as Doctor Rockit, Wishmountain, Radio Boy, Transformer, and others. Globally respected beyond narrow scenes or genes, he has also produced and remixed artists as diverse as Björk, REM, John Cale, Roisin Murphy, Yoko Ono, and Serge Gainsbourg.
Scale, a culmination of these achievements to date, contained echoes of all Herbert's musical identities. In a career spanning jazz, house, techno, and avant-garde sample collages, his most frequent vocal collaborator has been his partner Dani Siciliano. The velvet-voiced chanteuse again featured prominently on Scale alongside singers Neil Thomas and Dave Okumu, who fronts the band. The album also featured a chamber orchestra, a woodwind section, French horns, and many of the big band players heard on Herbert's 2003 album, Goodbye Swingtime.
On the surface at least, Scale is Herbert's smoothest and sweetest album so far. The overall tone is bright and opulent, the prevailing musical chatter a sophisticated conversation between luxuriant jazz, sumptuous disco, and sensual house rhythms.
In making Scale, Herbert also relaxed the dogma-like restrictions of his self-imposed Personal Contract for the Composition of Music. Devised in 2000, the PCCOM prohibits the use of pre-set keyboard sounds, drum machines, or secondary musical sources. Mistakes and accidents also become key to the compositional process.
But, like any good scientist, Herbert knows rules are made to be broken. "I put the rules to one side for this record," he explains. "I just wanted to do whatever felt right, whatever allowed the songs to work in a spontaneous way. The irony is, by the end of it, I had probably stuck to 98 per cent of the rules anyway. For example, I certainly haven't sampled any other people's music on this record, but one track was made with 177 different messages left on an answerphone we set up specifically for the album."
Most of the unusual objects on Scale were deployed in groups of 12, a thematic nod to the Western musical scale of 12 notes. But the album title also has another meaning: scale as in perspective, the means to gauge the distance between past and present, childhood and adulthood, personal contentment and global discontent; finding a way to measure his own life as a successful musician with freedom against a global backdrop of war, poverty, and inequality.
"Hopefully the album still has that celebratory quality, even though it's a kind of sad," Herbert concludes. "I wanted to write an upbeat pop record, but I didn't. The world is so messy at the moment, I couldn't bring myself to do it. But I would really like this record to be considered upbeat. It's designed to be enjoyable."
Ah, but Scale is much more than enjoyable. It is a sumptuous banquet of soulful pop made with integrity, intelligence, and invention. Proof that, even in troubled times, the best music can be both playful and political, serious and sublime. It is all just a question of scale.