In the cooking pot of electronic music simmering away for the past decade or so, Matthew Herbert has been one of the main stock flavours. His 2001 release, Bodily Functions, however, marked a landmark in what his way of working could produce and also what electronic music could be capable of. Working to a self-constructed manifesto (or his “Personal Contract for the Composition of Music” – PCCOM for short), Herbert limited himself (and still does–but more on that later) to using entirely original sounds. “The use of sounds that exist already is not allowed…No drum machines. No synthesizers. No presets.” With those kinds of rules in place, most artists wouldn’t even bother jumping into the cooking pot. If anything it shows that Herbert is more likely the water itself then–if not the pot that’s holding everything together.
Arguably, it’s strange to put constrictions in place that limit an artis, especially when there’s no real need to do so. But that’s the kicker: Matthew Herbert hasn’t really been making “electronic” music in any sort of traditional sense since he put together his manifesto. All his sounds are either live instruments or samples of noises he’s taken from his subject matter. He challenges himself to create melodies, textures, rhythms, beats, and just sound itself. He takes the elements of Musique concrete and gives it a modern spin.
Reissued on its tenth anniversary, Bodily Functions still sounds pristine, careful, intriguing, mysterious, and wonderful. It’s seems strange to describe the actual music as half of the fun with Herbert’s music is experiencing it. You might hear what sounds like traditional drum machines, but you’re more likely to be hearing the sound of doors being slammed, the scraping of someone’s knuckles, or the contents of a handbag turned into percussion. Nothing is as you expect it to be, and close listening rewards this, allowing detail to trickle into your ear, for new sounds to be heard with each listen.
Nonetheless, the album still sounds great from a distance. The beats here (whatever they are) drive most of the songs, and the album plays out like a comedown house compilation. Nothing beats you over the head, but you could certainly move to a track like “Foreign Bodies,” “You Saw It All,” or “The Audience.” The latter track in particular still sounds tremendous, building higher and higher with twin female vocals playing off each other like a devil and angel on the shoulder of someone conflicted. Eventually it spreads out smoothly when the chorus comes around, which feels like an unexpected maneuver in the song with each listen, as you half expect it to soar and lose control. “It’s Only” is also worth mentioning, as it introduces the listener to the world of Bodily Functions properly (after the brief, but beautifully sad “You’re Unknown To Me”). It takes each step carefully, sounding like it’s a living being itself, exhaling with a (heart)beat that keeps the whole thing tied together as, what sounds like, neurons fire at the brain in the background. It’s a landscape as much as it is a portrait.
What Bodily Functions stands best as, perhaps, is a masterclass in fusion. Nestling between these “electronic” tracks is a near equal amount of smooth, lounge jazz. It can catch you by surprise as Herbert’s use of complex time signatures and the occasional polyrhythms means that the jazz elements slide in nicely between everything else. But it really works its way into the surroundings wonderfully so that even when the instrumental “About This Time Each Day” sounds perfectly in place even though it’s a jazz band playing a sorrowful Bill Evans & Jim Hall blues take.
All of Herbert’s delicate “found-sound” looping and sampling, accomplished compositions, and instrumental backdrops are held together by one voice, though. Herbert’s former wife Dani Siciliano takes centre stage for most of the tracks here and her voice is a sultry, inviting one that fits perfectly into all the human machinery and jazz playing happening behind her. The lyrics are also to be noted, too, as they seem to describe the rise and fall of a human infatuation with another, from the aforementioned “You’re Unknown To Me” to “Addiction,” which gets off by describing the act of getting off (“Turn me on and watch me go/straight and narrow, nice and slow/ Push me over, see me spin/ Watch me fight the pull within”). It’s easy to read each line as either a reference to the mere human reaction via the titular “bodily functions,” but it’s easy to interpret it all as a sort of sound staging of the downfall of a relationship (after all, Siciliano is Herbert’s former wife).
The 2012 reissue of the album comes equipped with a disc of remixes and for the most part they build upon the material well. While I don’t think many are sticking to Herbert’s optional manifesto rule that remixes should be completed only using sounds from the original tracks, it’s interesting to see how others have transformed them. Jamie Lidell turns “The Audience” into something pretty much entirely detached from the original, singing in his usual friendly tone backed by a track that sounds like it’s something culled from his own recording studio floor. Dave Aju sounds like he’s reversing the melodies from “Foreign Bodies” and it comes off as an intriguing transformation of the original while Matmos cuts of the vocals on “The Audience” moreso and creates a new song for himself, and although it’s not quite as captivating as its source, its jagged edges and contrasting múm-like twinkles make it worth a listen. The best remixes come on the last third of the disc as they morph into a great playlist, full of driving cut-and-pasted percussion and titbits that don’t distract too much nor seek to exploit the “weird” element of Herbert’s original sounds.
While it’s welcome to have Bodily Functions in the limelight again, the full package feels a bit lacking. A disc of remixes is welcome (and expected, if anything) but what would have made this a fuller picture would have been more reworking or alternate takes from Herbert himself, like “Back To The Start” (which is a compilation take from 2006, around the time of 100lbs, oddly enough). And even if there aren’t b-sides to put out, a write-up or just some more extensive linear notes would have gone down a treat. The artwork is cool (words make up images like eyes and hearts) but it feels like another standard issue folding CD case when you don’t take into consideration the quality of the music itself.
Nonetheless, Bodily Functions still stands up by itself. It’s an exemplary album that here shows it has more than definitely stood the test of time. It also sounds great when you consider the fact that Herbert is working in much the same way, creating albums composed entirely of noises from a pig (2011’s One Pig), or objects bought from a supermarket (Tesco, under his Wishmountain moniker). At the very least, a reissue of Bodily Functions makes it clear to those perplexed by the name Matthew Herbert and why he’s regarded in such good terms (if not owning a legendary status). Thinking about it now, Herbert isn’t the water or the stock in the pot; he’s the guy recording the sound of the water boiling and making great music from it.