Although primarily known as an actor, comedy performer, and voice over artist, in recent years Matt Berry has received an increasing amount of attention for his music. Since 2005 Berry has released five albums, which although utterly charming, can also verge on the uncategorisable. Late 60s psychedelic folk seems to have been a significant influence, but there’s also elements of jazz, pure pop, progressive rock, spoken word, and a generous serving of a general sense of the other. On top of all this, there’s a distinctly recognisable love of analogue sounds, lending Matt Berry’s music a feeling of depth and durability that has become increasingly harder to come by in recent decades. A particular thrill are those moments when Berry’s comedy acting and musical careers intersect, such as the music he wrote and performed for the criminally overlooked series Snuff Box, and the fact that “Take My Hand” from 2009’s Witchazel, handily doubles up as the theme tune for Berry and Arthur Mathew’s much loved series, Toast of London.
I have pondered for a while in which order to write about Matt Berry’s album releases, as the first two were originally self-released and were released on Acid Jazz years later, effectively out of sequence, however I have opted to go by original chronological release date, just to keep things as simple and easy to follow as possible. I am also aware of an album Berry self-released in the mid 90s called Jackpot, of which there are a few allusion to across the web, but the man himself has dismissed on social media as ‘not good enough’ in the past, so it seems unlikely that it will get a re-release on Acid Jazz any time soon.
Opium was originally released in 2005, prior to Matt Berry becoming a familiar face on television outside of his appearances on cult classics like The Mighty Boosh and Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. Quite what anyone who picked it up at the time thought of its blend of spoken word, idiosyncratic song craft, and music which lurches from progressive pop to beautiful downer tunes from track to track, is anyone’s guess, especially as it was such an obscure release at the time. With Acid Jazz re-releasing Opium in recent years, and Berry’s musical output having subsequently reached a receptive audience, it’s an album which took the best part of a decade and then some to find its audience, however in retrospect it’s actually one of Matt Berry’s best albums, and the one that has more threads of the tragic-comic elements that fans of his acting will be familiar with.
One of Opium’s strengths is the fact that it has so many spoken word passages which allowed Berry to make great use of his immense talents as a voice over artist, however as an album it is laden with great tunes, from the dramatic instrumental which follows a suitably scene setting spoken word introduction, to the beautifully resigned “Reach for the Ground”, as well as the durable “Love is a Fool”, a number which would get reworked firstly as the Snuff Box theme, then reimagined multiple times throughout that series. Elsewhere there are solid psych pop numbers dotted throughout Opium, with “White Hood” and the closing “One More Hit” demonstrating that even at this stage in his music career Matt Berry is already so much more than an actor dabbling in music, and is steadily establishing himself as a legitimately great musician in his own right.
Like Opium, Witchazel had been released years before Acid Jazz reissued it. Originally offered as a free-download for just one day in 2009, it wouldn’t see a wider release until Acid Jazz released it on CD in 2011. A more dense sounding album than Opium, Witchazel found Matt Berry doubling down on the psychedelic folk influences to create an album which had a unique aural texture of its very own, as well as Berry making one of his most significant creative connections with Cecilia Fage, a regular collaborator whose evocative woodwind and vocals are a key element of Berry’s albums and live appearances to this day.
Although probably one of Matt Berry’s least accessible albums for a newcomer, Witchazel still has moments of pop genius, such as “So Low” and “Take My Hand”. “Woman” is another of those utterly beautiful downbeat numbers that Berry has mastered throughout his career, and is genuinely emotionally effecting, while “A Song for Rosie” stitches folk rock to something distinctly nursery rhyme-sque with surprisingly impressive results.
It’s from the mid-point onwards where Witchazel becomes a less digestible listening experience. The nearly nine minute psychedelic folk wig-out that is “The Pheasant” drags you on a lush, densely wooded, and breathtaking musical journey. “Woman” aside, the rest of Witchazel is almost wilfully disorientating, yet still beguiling, like a naturally occurring tapestry of top class musicianship, with a return to spoken word passages on “The Badger’s Wake”, someone doing a shockingly accurate Paul McCartney impression on “Rain Came Down”, and even a bit of jazz thrown in for good measure. While Witchazel may not be the ideal first Matt Berry album for most people, it is one that handsomely repays regular replays, so is one that gets returned to time and time again.
Acid Jazz’s reissue of Witchazel in 2011 allowed it to find a wider audience than it had on first release, however it was 2013’s Kill the Wolf which established Matt Berry on the musical map. Given a nice promotional push by Acid Jazz, Kill the Wolf was anticipated by a growing and enthusiastic fanbase, was generally well received by those that reviewed it, and remains a personal favourite of many of his fans (including this writer).
Dripping with a retro psychedelic folk vibe, Kill the Wolf finds space for pagan chanting, pop rockers, the nine and a half minute epic “Solstice”, stunning musicianship as far as the ear can hear, and features beautiful artwork. For those encountering Berry’s music for the first time Kill the Wolf is heady, yet surprisingly accessible, an album which sounds strangely ageless, while still smartly tipping its hat to the likes Canterbury Scenesters Caravan and Freak Folksters Comus.
Kill the Wolf is an album where the highlights are plentiful. Outside of the aforementioned “Solstice”, “The Signs” and “Medicine” are a pair of brisk psych-pop numbers, opener “Gather Up” is a chanted folk number which circles in on itself, while “Devil Inside Me” is screaming out to be the theme to a Matt Berry comedy vehicle at some point in the future, and the whole album is reassuringly consistent throughout.
Following up Kill the Wolf must have been an overwhelming task, but Berry smartly side-stepped the issue with Music for Insomniacs. Effectively a two part instrumental odyssey, as well as a vehicle for him to pay tribute to synth doodlers such as Mike Oldfield and Jean Michel Jarre, Music for Insomniacs simply doesn’t invite comparisons to Kill the Wolf.
Does the synth instrumental approach mean that Music for Insomniacs has the feel of a cold and technical exercise like so many released by Oldfield and Jarre? It’s certainly an album I personally find considerably less engaging than his others, but much of that is due to the fact that Berry’s warm and utterly likeable voice is absent, leaving him to express his winning personality via his playing, something which he manages to achieve, even though it’s something that many of the very best musicians can fail to do (indeed technical proficiency seems to hinder this rather than help). There are moments of levity as well, and it’s nice to think of Berry working on this music in the small hours, doing his best not to disturb the neighbours, as his sleep-deprived mind drives this music.
Is Music for Insomniacs a great album? For me it falls short of that, though fans of instrumental music will find much to love. Is it pleasingly mellow and undistracting background music? Sure is, and you get the impression that that is what Berry was aiming for.
With two full albums released in subsequent years, it came as a bit of a surprise when 2015’s Matt Berry and The Maypoles Live was announced. Running to an economical 46 minutes, even the artwork has the feel of those budget live albums from the 70s which offered surprisingly good value regardless, and that is exactly what is delivered. With the musicianship on each of Matt Berry’s albums taking a leap forward with each release, it’s heartening to report that this live album echoes that, and does so in thrillingly dynamic fashion.
Another great thing about the eleven tracks of Matt Berry and The Maypoles Live is that they’re not just the accessible crowdpleasers, but include a mix of his lengthier songs, the numbers from Berry’s TV themes, Ronnie Hazelehurst’s theme for 80s sitcom Sorry, and even a snatch of “The Empty Room” from Snuff Box. If you’re looking for a single album which encapsulates everything great about Matt Berry’s music, then Matt Berry and The Maypoles Live is an album that should be given full consideration.
Released in 2016, The Small Hours found Matt Berry exploring darker and jazzier sounds as its moody artwork suggests, though yet again, there’s a pair of absolutely accessible belters in “Lord Above” and “One by One”, albeit a pair of distinctly off-kilter ones. Actually the majority of The Small Hours is off-kilter and that enhances the restless nocturnal vibe of the album, where each song becomes a lucid dream during a night of broken sleep, reaching an apex with the immense and rather intense “Night Terrors” instrumental, which means that when “Lord Above” follows it, it really is providing some much needed levity.
Much like Witchazel, The Small Hours may not be the ideal introduction to Matt Berry’s music, but once you are a fan, it is one of his albums that you keep returning to as it gradually reveals itself over time, rather than being one that lodges itself in your psyche in the first few listens. The Small Hours durability was emphasised in 2017 when it received a remix companion piece by way of a mini-album called Night Terrors.
With an album of cover versions of retro television theme tunes announced as his next album due to be released in October 2018, Matt Berry continues to cut a unique dash across a contemporary music scene which is in dire need of more individuals like him. He consistently releases albums that you feel are as near as he can get to his creative vision, and he is left to do so with the bare minimum of record company meddling. When it comes to his music, there is seemingly no facade with Matt Berry, and he genuinely loves the creative process.
True, Matt Berry’s music is not for everyone, but neither does he deserved to be simply dismissed as just another bloke off the telly indulging in his hobby and inflicting it on the public. For those that connect with it, there is something about Berry’s music that speaks to a part of them that few other acts can reach, and each of his album releases are anticipated, and his gigs are genuine events, where you can be assured of top-class support acts (indeed, thanks to Matt Berry, both Pugwash and Xylaroo can count me among their fans), and a bunch of top flight musicians playing some of the most life-affirming music you’ll ever hear.
Oh, and maybe, just maybe, Acid Jazz will one day re-release the soundtrack to Snuff Box.