Album review: Matt Berry – The Blue Elephant

Source: album artwork

Words by Grey Malkin

Matt Berry, musician, actor, voiceover and writer, is undoubtedly something of a renaissance man. For the general public he is perhaps best recognised from his television work as characters such as Toast of London, Sanchez from Darkplace or Beef from House of Fools. However, Berry has also been diligently issuing highly inventive and richly detailed albums dating back to 1995’s Jackpot, arguably firmly finding and establishing his groove with 2011’s Witchazel and its bewitching blend of acid folk and progressive psych, adorned with knowing touches that referenced a rich tapestry of artists from Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre, to Pentangle and Gabriel-era Genesis. Successive releases followed on the Acid Jazz Records label, which has offered Berry’s eclectism a welcome base from which to follow his muse, be it the vintage synth sounds of 2014’s Music For Insomniacs, or 2018’s Television Themes, (on which, memorably, the theme song from Rainbow is transformed into a Donovan-esque psych folk classic). Berry’s previous album Phantom Birds (2020) found his usual lushly orchestrated work stripped back and was equally compulsive for its intimacy. However, it is pleasing to note that with new release, The Blue Elephant, Berry returns to his more layered and embellished narratives; indeed, if anything, this is his most finely and baroquely adorned work to date, perhaps deliberately so. Much of the joy in his music comes from the finely wrought, oft vintage sounds and styles that Berry tries on, akin to Mr Ben in a musical Madam Tussauds, rather than a costume shop. Consistently inventive, interesting, and oddly affecting, Blue Elephant is by turn wistful, melancholic, unsettling, and thrilling.

The album opens with a brief introduction, all dramatic timpani rolls and washes of cinematic mellotron flute, with strong echoes of Steve Hackett‘s atmospheric prog opus, Voyage of The Acolyte. An earthy bass provides an anchor, before Summer Sun’s urgent chiming guitars and Berry’s warm tones emerge propel matters somewhere between Hush-era Deep Purple, The Moody Blues and The Left Banke. This eclectic magpie approach is Berry’s strength, as familiar musical tropes of 60’s and 70’s folk, pop, funk and rock merge with bubbling, whirring analogue synths to create something that becomes an inspired tribute, rather than a pastiche. This style or sound is also something that is becoming very much Berry’s own signature, it is now possible to describe a piece of music as Matt Berry-esque, which is no bad thing; indeed, it’s a recommendation.

The Ray Manzarek styled organ and John Barry instrumental espionage of Safe Passage blends into the shuffling funk breakdown of Now Disappear before Berry’s distinctive voice makes a welcome reappearance with Alone. The tracks on Blue Elephant feel carefully designed to be listened to as a whole; they segue into each other and follow a narrative mood of sorts, with instrumental passages punctuated by more dramatic or filmic songs or moments. Each piece of this ‘suite’ comes with its own masterfully woven details and twists and turns. For example, Alone’s angelic mellotron choirs merge with the Warrior on The Edge of Time style spoken word section of the three parter Blues Inside Me, which then gradually transforms itself into funk laden analogue electronics. By contrast, there then follows a metamorphosis into Floydian Farfisa organ and Syd Barrett-y breakdowns, conjuring a hazy, paisley patterned Sunday afternoon. However, the central element of Blues Inside Me is more conventional 60’s classic pop fare, a neat and attentive variation that balances the more outré soundtrack rooted pieces. This then glides seamlessly into I Cannot Speak, a perfectly pitched slice of classic Matt Berry, replete with wah wah guitars, a triumphant yet curiously melancholic brass punctuated chorus, and an underlying sense of the otherworldly. Berry’s world is never sinister, but it is strangely strange and can be oddly odd.

Over on side two, the title track’s jittery piano and Spanish Caravan guitar thrum is layered with a truly lysergic spoken word passage, adding a deranged exotica to proceedings. Life Unknown’s glistening and descending keyboard runs are both transportive and cosmiche rather than either showy or flash, despite the obvious musicianship on display; Berry instead, wisely, focuses his sights on evoking mood and texture. Next, Safer Passage’s disorientating effects lead into a passage of plaintive flute and guitar, alternating between psych folk and a full-on prog workout, embellished with flickering sci-fi synths, alien chants and more Doors-y organ. Like Stone’ offers a more conventional slice of funk, although one complete with wild flange and sitar effects. Story Told begins with the cries of a (blue) elephant before blooming into a gorgeous and delicate piano piece, weaving and wefting through warmly melancholic instrumental passages and jazzy organ breakdowns before ending in a truly epic Pearl and Dean manner, whilst Forget Me’s backwards guitar effects and stately piano make for a perfectly formed baroque ballad. The album then closes with a reprise of Now Disappear (Again), a spy theme for a yet unmade Le Carre film.

Indeed, the album as a whole often invokes an atmosphere of 60’s espionage, a distinctly Harry Palmer mood or atmosphere. There is a vintage, dusty and slightly sad sense of yesterday as well as one of cool and intrigue. It is testament to Berry’s genius that all the components and seemingly disparate stylings and instrumentation flow as easy as water and gel so effortlessly and emotively. To listen is to enter his unique vision and, you sense, his way of seeing the world around him. Why not visit for a while, experience the Blue Elephant in all its strange beauty.

The Blue Elephant is due for release 14th May on Acid Jazz Records

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