If I didn't know about the brilliant madness behind Scale prior to hearing it, I would dismiss it as nothing more than run-of-the-mill R&B. And that might be Matthew Herbert's biggest failure with this album: it's a stroke of genius that comes across as a stroke of mediocrity.
Apparently, this album was recorded using 723 different samples. Drums were recorded underwater and in a hot air balloon, background noises were comprised of nearly 200 telephone messages, and one poor guy's barftastic expression outside of a London bar has been immortalized in the hallowed halls of house music. It's very cool stuff. As for the music: the vocals are smooth and sweet, the melodies ride on flowing chord progressions, the beats are subtle yet dancable, the arrangements are impeccably rich and full... and the whole thing is completely forgettable.
The problem is that Scale is all brains and no heart. As much as I admire Herbert's ambition, there are very few moments on the album where I feel anything. The political songs have all the anger of a love song by Chicago, and the love songs have all the heart of Chicago's political repertoire.
There are a few bright spots, though. The low-end melody on "Birds of a Feather" supports a pretty but unsettling vocal melody, and the entire track builds to a quiet climax that leaves me wanting more. "Just Once" is one of the few songs where the experimental nature of Scale shines through, and its marriage of non-traditional sounds to simple, catchy melodies makes it the most interesting song on the album.
I wonder if the critics who gave glowing reviews to Scale would have done so if they hadn't known about Herbert's methods. Whether the end result is pop or abstract, experimental music should be able to stand on its own, without a piece of paper to tell the listener why it's good. Most of Herbert's tracks sound like outtakes and b-sides from the heyday of West End or Casablanca, tracks that Larry Levan might have passed over in lieu of Billy Nichols' "Give Your Body Up to the Music" or Peech Boys' "Don't Make Me Wait." Scale lacks the sexy funk of early Prince, and even with Herbert's stellar arrangements, it lacks the romance of even the cheesiest tune from Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra.
Packaging: n/a (Missing)
The librarians at the EPFL were kind enough to photocopy the front and back covers, but there's no original artwork here. I imagine the booklet would be an invaluable companion, but I've never seen it so I don't know. The design on the actual disc looks neat but is virtually impossible to read, making it a perfect companion to the music: a neat idea that is more form than function.
Listen if you like: Early 80s R&B, Parade-era Prince, Larry Levan, experimental music in all of its many shapes.
If it were food, it'd be: A miraculous, organic, high-fiber, low-fat, fruit-filled, well-balanced, inexpensive new food that looks and tastes exactly like Wonder bread.