Bad workmen blame their tools, but bad musicians celebrate theirs. The longer someone tells you about the custom strings and hand-burnished finish on their guitar, or about how their modular synth set-up is 100% Soviet era technology from the Latvian state broadcaster, the less interesting their music tends to be. A similar breed exists within field-sampling obsessives, who will proudly tell you how their entire sonic palette is sourced from a single turnip, before proceeding to play the most uninteresting chunks of generic techno.
The major exceptions to this rule have always been Matmos and Herbert, both of whom tend to apply rigid sound-sourcing strictures to their projects, but who deliver music that’s varied, thoughtful and – most importantly – actually good. But whilst Matmos make twitchy, glitchy artcore, (Matthew) Herbert’s music has always had a warm melodic heart and at least one foot on the dancefloor, even when the sonic sources are making a high-concept political point (check the critique of industrialised food production on 2005’s Plat Du Jour).
Musca is the latest album in Herbert’s “domestic house” style – musca domestica is the scientific name for the common house fly, entomology fans – and utilises samples from the farm on which he lives, alongside real instruments and a raft of vocalists. Of course, thousands of artists will have spent the last 18 months writing music about being stuck at home, but very few will have realised said music by banging bits of their actual house. In doing so, Herbert may have produced the quintessential lockdown project.
If this preamble brings visions of wonky lo-fi collages, however, the truth is that Musca is an album packed with wide-angled production, crisp sounds and clear, limpid vocal lines. The truly impressive trick here is not that Herbert has managed to make a record from sounds including pigs snoring and foxes growling, but how quickly you forget all about it; the opening minute of slow gravel-crunching footsteps and distant birdsong is false advertising, and is soon replaced by a pulsating piece of ritualistic house with a sinisterly smouldering Massive Attack-ish vocal, on Two Doors.
For this is an album, not of austere isolationist soundscapes or dreamy escapism, but well crafted songs, with a roster of strong, expressive singers (none of whom Herbert met before or during production, fascinatingly). Highlights include Chain Reaction, which drapes an intermittent, sultry bass and rich, intimate vocals over a naggingly repeated little boing sound, which is probably what Clippy the paperclip sounded like in a fit of pique, and The Impossible, a tap-drip dub with snaky hollow percussion, sounding like an existentially troubled cousin of Björk’s Human Behaviour, that ends by slowly backing into an endless corridor of reverb (or maybe just the bathroom).
Many of the tracks sound like putative club choons that were artfully kept from growing to full maturity, and at their best these bonsai bangers marry space and delicacy with vocals that are soulful but breathily intimate. When Mel Uye Parker sings “you’ve got to be somewhere, you’ve got to be here”, in another universe this is a euphoric refrain in a festival anthem, but in the context of social distancing it has an entirely different interpretation – especially when riding the sort of ersatz “snare” that sounds equally like someone hitting a cassette box with a biro and an excited locust. Similarly, Siân Roseanna’s smooth croon that “a feeling like this always lasts” in Tell Me A Secret becomes rather less hedonistic when imagined as the mantra for lockdown week 37, the claustrophobic jitteriness exacerbated by a spiky rhythm that resembles some cutlery stuck in a tumble drier.
There are moments when Musca loses this enticingly odd atmosphere, most notably a couple of piano jazz ballads which skirt perilously close to Diana Krall’s vanilla sophistication, and the album is definitely a little too long – then again, what could be more authentically part of the covid experience than time seeming to drag occasionally? – but overall Musca is disarmingly intimate and intriguing. The album ends with Gold Dust, a grinning Rhodes pop groove that surprises by going beyond the spare clarity of preceding tracks with a huge Nelson Riddle meets Quincy Jones brass arrangement. Perhaps, to represent someone double-jabbed and off into the world again after so long in the house, the tentative, introspective songs have been joyously replaced by what sounds like something by Shirley Bassey. Albeit with extra bass, naturally.