Comedian and actor Matt Berry celebrates his convoluted folk-rock-acid-prog-psych-garage-synth-pop-jazz-fusion roots, with an outstanding album that evokes the whimsical sounds and wistful heady spirits of the early 1970s.
Acid Jazz AJXLP251,
Well here’s a genuine novelty that I really couldn’t realistically resist for long. An album. A genuine bona fide record etched deep into your actual polyvinyl chloride, recorded by one of those glamorous showbiz comedy types that I seem to rave on about. But, and here’s the quirky unforeseen twist worthy of a Roald Dahl short story, it’s a record that isn’t forty years old. Yes, in a glorious break with tradition I have made the momentous decision to review a record that hasn’t been passed from one disinterested charity shop bin to another, to be buffeted and pawed by well-meaning old ladies and collectors of Perry Como records, before somehow ending up in my rescue home for vinyl waifs and strays where it can be lovingly polished and listened to for the first time since the Suez Crisis. Look at me being all contemporary and getting on down with the kids and their iPods and playing my record from the first half of the 21st century! The Downstairs Lounge welcomes you to the Space Age, come taste the future and grow dizzy on the fumes!
It seems traditional that every review of Matt Berry’s new album Witchazel starts by pointing out that Matt Berry is better known from his appearances on The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. So as not to upset that fine traditional, I should point out (admittedly in the second paragraph) that the album Witchazel is by Matt Berry, who is perhaps better know from his appearances on The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. I’m always happy to comply with legislation. Health and Safety law is there solely for your protection people. Do please try to remember that next time the council are stopping you from using aviation fuel on your barbecue or insisting that your children shouldn’t play with live grenades in a shrapnel factory.
For those of you who aren’t aware of Matt Berry (despite me pointing out previously that he is a respected comedy actor who can be seen regularly in The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace) his acting roles often sees him adopt a strange strangled vocal range. It’s a sort of constantly strained, sonorous nasal whine, full of rich mellifluous tone, weak yet somehow simultaneously striking some deep, booming, basso profundo notes. His voice seems to come from another plane, as if an elderly actor had loaded up on steroids and monkey glands to struggle through one last performance of the minor Shakespearian role which had made his name in provincial rep fifty years earlier. I dare say that Matt can act without relying on his funny voice to carry him through a TV series but thankfully he can definitely sing without the need for such convoluted vocal acrobatics. It’s odd actually to hear him sing, because his voice is so restrained and genuinely tuneful that I wouldn’t instantly recognise it as being his.
So how did a booming comedy actor come to record an album that isn’t remotely comic? Well Matt Berry has apparently been a music hobbyist for years, largely making tunes to amuse himself in the sheltered confines of his flat, drawing on the early folk and psychedelia albums that influenced him as a child. He is a more than proficient musician and the number of instruments he plays on the record run well into double figures, dabbling in diverse musical elements such as Mellotron, accordion, ukulele and glockenspiel. Oh and of course the dinner bell.
Matt’s solo musical experimentations and abstract noodlings eventually found their way onto tape and made their way via his friends to Eddie Piller, founder of the esteemed Acid Jazz label. Although it is beyond their usual remit, Piller enjoyed what he heard and decided to sign Matt to record a whole album for him. A bold decision, and I’m thankful he did. Witchazel is an odd record from beginning to end; from the cover where Matt strides through autumnal scenes, resplendent and mystical with his stuffed pheasant and a cloak borrowed from the London Dungeon, to the beautiful tracks themselves.
I think the best way of describing the overall effect of Witchazel would be a sort of dreamy nightmarish folk concept album. It is infused throughout with the sort wistful polished folk rock vibe that hasn’t really been heard since the heady joss stick fogged days of the early 1970s. There are definite hints of early Ummagumma–era Pink Floyd and plenty of psychedelic prog in the mix too.
The album has many gentle lilting moments and is a relaxing soothing ride into a rural English idyll where pheasants, foxes and badgers play whist and dance to pan pipes. But there is a lot more lurking under the surface too. Accident at a Harvest Festival for instance, has a very scary electro synth vibe that draws the listener into a whole world of madness with its gruesome tale of a particularly blood soaked harvest festival. Drawing on a dream that he had to inspire him, Matt Berry the comedian crafts some witty underplayed lines on this track that display a macabre sense of humour.
The comic whimsy of Rain Came Down is perhaps the one truly silly song on the album and boasts an uncredited Peter Serafinowicz performing a passable Paul McCartney pastiche in a heart-felt plea for animals not to eat each other and behave like the Japanese.
Whimsy aside, there are many top musical moments to enjoy. So Low has definite hints of Iron Butterfly’s keyboard workout In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. On side B, tracks such as From the Manger to the Mortuary prove that Mr Berry knows how to lumber about and rock when necessary, the ‘assorted percussion and dinner bell’ on the album notes suddenly making sense as the track segues into the trilling Recorder Dance. This is a track that recalls lost golden summers dancing merrily with maypoles and garlands in the green of the wheat fields. With witch burning and sacrifices in the woods afterwards. The album ends on a high with Into the Sky, a raucous gravel-throated funky freak out that sees Matt let everything hang loose and really go wild like the badgers he seems to admire so much.
The beauty of playing these contemporary tracks is that someone else has done all the hard work of putting clips up on the web. So here it is the official video for the album’s single Take My Hand, again out there somewhere on vinyl!
Visit the Acid Jazz official site and discover more juicy Matt Berry goodness.