Words by Elvis Thirlwell
A work ethic nothing short of remarkable has enabled Matt Berry to forge a musical career every bit as prolific and successful as his acting one. Aside from writing and performing in numerous TV comedies – Snuff Box, The I.T Crowd, Toast of London (the list goes on), Berry has accrued a labyrinthine body of recordings, releasing nine albums during his decade with cult label Acid Jazz. In commemoration of this milestone, Acid Jazz have collated a 5LP retrospective box set, including a ‘greatest hits’ compilation, Gather Up, a hand-plucked selection of rarities and offcuts, an entire demo’d version of his 2020 album Phantom Birds, capping it off with a smattering of raucous live recordings with his band the Maypoles.
As Gather Up dutifully reminds us, Berry has, throughout his Acid Jazz tenure, cultivated a distinct style of folk-rock cut with impish proggy flair, one pastiched from the psychedelic niches of 60s/70s Britain. Ever precipitating loveliness, and straying never far from a comical quirk, his songwriting shines for its delicate melodic touch, smartly woven arrangements and straight-talking lyrics – preoccupied mostly with moon-struck love-declarations or depressed self-deprecations.
The cuts included from Berry’s early albums – 2011’s Witchazel, and 2013’s Kill the Wolf, occupy the collection’s more enchanted reaches. Awash with psych-folk mystery, these records approximate a semi-fictitious magic-laced english ruralism, one menaced by the country-side’s weeviling horrors, yet glorying in amber-toned autumnal wonders. Found here are the besottedly romantic ‘Take my Hand’ (recycled for the Toast of London theme), the mesmeric cycles of ‘The Badger’s Wake’; the strident harvest-summons of ‘Gather Up’, or the wickering prog epic ‘Solstice’, each ranking among Berry’s finest.
His subsequent rock records would commandeer a more ‘down-to-earth’ approach. The low-lit intimacies of 2016’s The Small Hours – one of the few albums recorded with the Maypoles (Berry prefers to record the majority of the parts himself) testifies this – the whimsical ‘Obsessed & So Obscure’ is noteworthy here, containing perhaps Berry’s most legendary chorus: “Now my heart beats for three / you and me and Christopher Lee”.
Whittled down further are the harmonica-puffing country sways of 2020’s Phantom Birds – ‘Something In My Eye’, pulled from that record, is an effortlessly breezy soft-rock confection. Only 2021’s The Blue Elephant re-launches Berry into cosmic spheres. His heaviest, perhaps weirdest album to date, it’s lead single ‘Summer Sun’… included here, accented by a broiling soul beat, may stake its claim as the boomiest ‘rocker’ of the compilation.
The real meat of Gather Up, as with any box set, comes with it’s curios and freshly exhumed bric-a-brac. Selections from 2014’s Music For Insomniacs – his accomplished ambient album, synthesised during bouts of sleeplessness, or 2018’s TV Themes – reproductions of classic British Television jingles (Blankety Blank et al.) reveal the far-reaching span of his artistry.
While the demo album Phantom First is pleasant, but of limited interest, and the bonus disc of live cuts, adds little to what could already be accessed on his 2015 Matt Berry and the Maypoles Live LP, most satisfying are those insights into the prelusive stages of his career. There’s his TV-penned tunes for Snuff Box (a version of his iconic ‘Theme from Snuff Box’ with Geno Washington on vocals is included here) and The AD/BC Rock Opera, his bewitching Myspace-released EP Summer Sun, and, most stunningly of all, rare vinyl-only B-Side ‘Autumn Equinox’: a breathtaking instrumental as awesome and compelling as the broaching dawn. Where Gather Up excels is in proffering a holistic curation of Matt’s Berry’s rich and diverse musical life, with gems such as these. Even the most committed fan will find much to cherish.
Gather Up is due for release 26/11 on Acid Jazz Records, available on vinyl and CD
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