- Politics and electronic music didn’t used to be such strange bedfellows. In the nineties, Mille Plateaux bolstered its empty clicks n' cuts collections with post-structuralist Deleuzzian drivel, Terre Thaemlitz used his machines to explore gender politics and Ekkehard Ehlers released an album with the twin towers on the cover and 'Politik' in the title. Yet somewhere along the way these overt political statements largely disappeared, especially in the dance community, in favour of music produced purely for pleasure.
Throughout his varied career, Matthew Herbert has explored various positions within these arguments, from producing seemingly innocent house music to demagogic musique concréte diatribes. His 'Personal Contract for the Composition of Music' prohibits him from using pre-existent samples of any kind, but that hasn't, necessarily, prevented him from releasing warm, inviting dance music. It's when the politics overshadows the music that things become problematic; well-intentioned and admirable it may be, but ultimately it’s difficult to enjoy listening to.
'Scale' is arguably Herbert's strongest fusion of political ambition with pop listenability to date. Rhythmically it slinks by with a lithe disco/house swing, and with its reliance on brass and strings it owes much to the 1970s. 'We're in Love', padded with lush harp lines and syrupy strings, wouldn't sound out of place on board 'The Love Boat', and after a cinematic introduction, 'Just Once' moves to a chorus fit for The Bee Gees. Elsewhere things skip and stutter like Matmos at their funkiest ('Harmonise'), and the background is often buzzing with digital detail (723 objects were sampled, including an RAF bomber, coffins, petrol pumps, meteorites and vomiting), but its the acoustic instruments which dominate. Both 'The Movers and the Shakers' and 'Moving Like a Train', with the addition of Herbert's big band, pound and swagger like prime Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson.
Like those artists, it's the voice that takes centre stage, something Herbert has shown considerable skill with since his early house productions. His partner Dani Siciliano takes the spotlight, alongside Dave Okumu (Jade Fox, SA-RA Creative Partners) and Neil Thomas and, alone or in harmony, they are frequently sublime. Opener 'Something Isn't Right' is immediately catchy, beautiful and danceable, but the album's highlight is 'Birds of a Feather', a rich hybrid of electronics, strings, horns and Siciliano's voice, which is swoon-inducing.
Thematically and lyrically, 'Scale' is concerned with oil and the violence involved in its acquisition, but these flew past me at first listen - all I caught were phrases which could just as easily appear on love ballads; however, a line such as 'I'm on fire' could here refer to something far more sinister than tearing up the dancefloor. References to terrorism, war and political impotence, delivered so sumptuously, make 'Scale' a complex proposition: an attempt at political subversion through both direct commentary and sheer delight. And for those offended by Herbert's ideology, it's an album which can be easily enjoyed, simply, as a collection of satisfyingly clever pop songs.