Initially released as a one day only freebie back in 2009, before seeing a wider commercial release in 2011, Witchazel is effectively the album where Matt Berry’s musical career really started gathering momentum. While the album Opium pre-dates it, as does the music he produced for a number of television shows, for Witchazel’s 2011 release Berry had penned a deal with the respected Acid Jazz label, which had ensured that it received full distribution.
Like much of Matt Berry’s musical output, the lines between what is and isn’t tongue in cheek on Witchazel blur to the point where it’s no longer feasible to discern the two from each other. For confirmation of this, look no further than the front artwork of the CD release which shows Berry with a partridge nestling on his arm, while the original free download featured an image of a badger playing the keyboards in a home recording studio. Serious? Not serious? The result of a fevered mind? Who knows. All we can really do is take Witchazel at face value, and enjoy it as a slice of folky psych-pop, flavoured with a distinctly early 70s prog rock feel.
The album opens with some gorgeous woodwind which sounds for all the world like it should be soundtracking some Oliver Postgate stop-frame animation, before it segues into “Take My Hand”, a beautiful slice of pure pop which would later find semi-fame as the opening theme for the Berry co-written television series Toast of London. It’s one of those songs which craftily weaves nostalgia into an oddly contemporary sound, while still remaining unashamedly accessible. Berry could conceivably make a comfortable living from doing little else but recording albums full of perfect pop tunes like this, but it’s a measure of his ambition that he spreads his talent across media in the manner that he does.
Another gorgeous tune offered by Witchazel is “A Song for Rosie”, a deceptively simple number that takes on an almost like nursery rhyme feel, while still sounding utterly mature and at peace with itself. It’s an oddly heart warming song which underlines Berry’s not inconsiderable talent for a concise melodic tune. For all of Berry’s comedic talent, one thing that Witchazel consistently does throughout is confirm the fact that he takes his music very seriously indeed.
If there is a flaw with Witchazel, it’s that its looseness can sometimes transcend into a lack of focus. Or at least, I initially thought it was a flaw. Repeated listens actually reveals it to be an album which nicely compliments a quiet evening spent enjoying a nice single malt whisky, or perhaps a lazy weekend morning perhaps nursing a moderate hangover, brought on by spending an enjoying a nice single malt whisky. It’s an album that sometimes wanders off on it’s own countryside ramble, soundtracking your wandering mind while embedding itself in your subconscious, tiptoeing somewhere between the hinterland of reality and the fantastical. As Witchazel continues, these unexpected turns become a little more frequent, such as when Paul McCartney’s vocals suddenly emerge unexpectedly during “Rain Came Down”. Eventually you realise that it strikes an odd balance, teetering between gentle and sinister, without tumbling in either direction.
As distracting as Witchazel’s less focused moments can feel, the album itself has a felling of unity within itself, and any reordering of the sequence of the tracks, or omitting some would have left it feeling a somewhat less complete statement. Perhaps this then was Berry’s intention all along. Even the best prog rock albums of the early 70s have passages where the shifting focus and changes of pace occasionally gets a little fuzzy, before sharpening up again. By allowing the focus to shift from sharpness to something a little more hazy, he’s recalling the same thing done by some of the great albums that have had an influence on Witchazel.
Such was the success of Witchazel as a creative statement, Berry has continued to release albums on Acid Jazz, with 2013’s Kill the Wolf being a thorough exploration of psych-folks more dense audio vegetation and 2014’s Music for Insomniacs being unfettered on instrumental meandering. For a stroll through some of the unsettlingly beautiful yet sinister side of nature, Witchazel is the Matt Berry album to go for.