Matthew Herbert’s last album, released last year, was as intriguing as it was utterly bizarre. One Pig collected together samples drawn from the 20-week life span of its titular protagonist – from birth to the slaughterhouse – in a wonderfully mischievous album-cum-social-commentary of clattering electronica replete with pig-skin drums. In following this monumental work, Herbert has, understandably, taken a different approach on his latest work. Taking on his Wishmountain moniker for the first time since 1998, Herbert has stated that with Tesco he “felt like making some old-fashioned dance music”.
On one level, this is exactly what he did. Tesco is a collection of straight-ahead, four-to-the-floor techno, albeit shaded with dark, grainy textures. Yet, in Matthew Herbert we have an artist with an insatiable appetite to explore innovative approaches to composition, new ways to communicate meanings through music, and it seems unlikely that he would be satisfied with releasing ‘just’ a dance album. Indeed, whilst Tesco is certainly a decidedly more low-key affair than One Pig (it was recorded over a period of just four days), it is no less conceptual.
As its title suggests, this is an album inspired by that ubiquitous retailer, with each track taking its samples from one of the store’s eight top selling items: from Andrex to Walkers. As such, Tesco serves as a critical look at consumerist culture, making up for what it lacks in subtlety with an endearing streak of invention and remarkable self-discipline. Drawing a plethora of sounds and noises from the products in question, Herbert conjures eerie, and often unsettling, soundworlds throughout the album: the fizz of a Lucozade bottle masquerades as a full-blown explosion and the sound of someone blowing over a Fruit Shoot bottle inhabits a throbbing low end. Perhaps a response to the fetishising of consumer items instigated, in part, by the hyperreality of modern advertising, Tesco amplifies and distorts its subjects into an exaggerated state of imposing, highly tactile musical textures.
Herbert’s Wishmountain is a project borne out of constraint. With only an eight output sampler at his disposal, Herbert’s early music under the pseudonym was governed by the regulation that each track was to be built out of a total of eight sounds. This initially undesired technical limitation appears again on Tesco, only now as a purely self-imposed restraint: a test of ingenuity and resourcefulness. In paring back his sound palette, Herbert situates these tracks within a generous aural space in which each sound becomes a miniature sonic event, bestowed with a significance and indispensable place within the whole. Whilst it might be rather trite to spout the well-worn less-is-more routine here, this album, and the Wishmountain project as a whole, serves as a pertinent testament to the misguidedness of current attempts to enliven recordings with a saturation forcibly compressed blocks of sound.
Despite its commitment to polemic and unconventional compositional practice, Tesco is, as Herbert himself has claimed, an album rooted firmly in the viscerality of dance music. It’s an album that refuses to take itself too seriously, occasionally irreverent and determined to revel in its own casual nature. Certainly, Tesco is not a significant artistic statement on the level of One Pig, Plat Du Jour or the seductive, jazz inflected Slate, yet this is an album which positively crackles with personality and invention, and therein lies its abundant, if not particularly long-lasting, appeal.