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The Matthew Herbert Big Band - The State Between Us Music Album Reviews

The producer and DJ’s guest-packed “Brexit album” conjures a great sprawl of humor and tragedy that makes for Herbert’s richest album in years.

Matthew Herbert was once a people-pleasing house DJ, but over the past decade he has become known primarily as an eccentric. His high-concept themes and unorthodox methods—manipulating samples from aerial warfare, a pig’s life, and other artifacts of consumerism—tend to overshadow the producer and composer’s core mission: an earnest campaign to make us to consider not just sounds but also their sources, and to experience both as equals.

The project has a forbiddingly post-modern ring to it, so it’s worth stressing that the best entry point to The State Between Us, his sprawling and guest-packed Brexit album, is also the easiest: Go in blind, and let his collage of jazz, house, blues and politically loaded field recordings lead your curiosity. Take “The Tower”: The album track opens with a gentle shuffle and a staticky sound that eventually resolves into footsteps and wind. A shrill piano chord chimes from the periphery, the kind you might hear at a nuclear power station after pressing the wrong button. It rings out several times and settles only when a jazz beat skulks in, coaxing out a full-blown big band number. For the next few minutes, brass rises and falls in waves of rapture and panic. Then footsteps resume as a police siren sounds in the distance. After the song finishes, the curious can read a gut-wrenching footnote: Herbert made the field recording in London last May, on a silent march for the victims of the Grenfell Tower blaze.

Like Brexit, the deadly fire that “The Tower” commemorates has prompted allegations of state racism while entrenching divisions between British people and an indifferent elite. In a tone of inquiry and elegy, Herbert has found a way to eulogize these modern tragedies even as he pillories the political farce enabling them. Herbert has always obsessed over the big picture, which makes Britain’s departure from the European Union a convenient problem: Now that cultural regression is headline news, he can make these bold proclamations without being branded a kook.

In 2017, Herbert revived the big band project he launched in 2003 and enlisted multinational guest singers and big bands to record his new songs. He wanted the reboot to advance a Brexit counter-narrative, and the record even had the same deadline as Brexit—March 29—but, unlike the British government, he’s sticking to it. He enlisted local big bands around Europe for short-notice tour dates and recorded in their dressing rooms. He deployed proxies across the continent on bizarre missions. The recordings they gathered include Gibraltarian monkeys, a trumpet being deep-fried, a swimmer crossing the English Channel, and someone dismantling a Ford Fiesta. Two minutes into opener “A Devotion Upon Emergent Occasions,” a medieval chant gets ambushed by a roaring motor and mighty crash: The sound of a 180-year-old German pine tree being felled with a chainsaw during Brexit. (He’s also recorded a companion album documenting every second of the tree’s final week, reasoning, “I'd rather listen to a tree than [Brexit ringleader] Boris Johnson.”) Together these contextual flourishes conjure a great sprawl of humor and tragedy that makes for Herbert’s richest album in years.

That’s not to say it goes down easily. A hostile environment of dread and paranoia lasts through the opening songs and well into track three, when keys roll in and a spotlight falls on guest vocalist Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne. She sighs the song’s title, “You’re Welcome Here,” and the album softens: From then on, The State Between Us provides a balm to the dispossessed. To submit to the dreamlike record is to wend through cities and centuries, big-band ballads and avant-classical curveballs. Interpolating text from a Caryl Churchill play, “The Special Relationship” unfurls like contemporary opera, with Arto Lindsay yelling “Catastrophe!” and “Cunt!” in character as the British and American governments. More than an hour in, “Where’s Home?” busts out the first dance beat: a carnivalesque house squall.

“Fish and Chips,” with its cantankerous rhythms and triumphal brass, is similarly euphoric, though once you consider the title, which evokes a British innocence that now feels vaguely ironic, it begins to sound less like a carnival than a wake. In this spirit of national reckoning, Herbert rummages deep in the British psyche and pulls out an unlikely cover of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.” This wartime classic has a Proustian significant to many Brits that is rivaled only by the Coronation Street theme and the smell of Battenberg. Yet Herbert, with his usual sledgehammer symbolism, conscripts a German big band to perform it. He aims for your gut, where so much of the avant-garde can’t reach, and rarely misses.

At two hours long, The State Between Us ought to waver in focus or intensity, but Herbert has never sounded more at home. Safe in the knowledge that most British people, for better or worse, can’t help but engage with the subject, he taps into a small, honest hope that would be inexplicable as a thinkpiece. On “You’re Welcome Here,” for instance, Debebe-Dessalegne sings, “We can stay here in the music,” while an angelic choir serves as propaganda for the redeeming qualities of community. Like a sardonic opera, Herbert’s grand vision could easily live on as a post-colonial, anti-nationalist allegory. Yet it’s just as reassuring to imagine that, one day, Brexit’s toxic memory will fade, his field recordings will lose all poignancy, and the trees will again sound just like trees, nothing more and nothing less.

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