|Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Jonathan Easley|
|Friday, 08 August 2008|
The fact that disco could uncover itself with such aplomb in 2008 is evidence of a paradigm-ic shift in the way music is experienced. It’s an extension of a house scene that went dormant under the weight of weepy white boys in the early to mid-aughties, but has caught a second wind as people turn their backs on guitar-wielding stage egos for music that can be felt, experienced. See also Sunn-O)))’s Stephen O’Malley, who claims his brand of black-drone-metal has meditative properties when experienced live. Regardless of whether it’s an endo-rattling drone or a groovy dance beat that is your preferred method for psychic release, you will experience a more body-incorporative trance when you’re not gawking at the hair, tats and jeans combo on-stage at a traditional rock concert.
Of course, I can’t answer the above how and why questions; but clues to the scene seem to lie with 29-year-old disc jockey Andy Butler and his New York collective, disco-moment debut Hercules and Love Affair. The album is not perfect, but there are at least a couple of reasons why it doesn’t need to be. First of all, there are familiar sign-posts popping up to gently direct those who may never have thought themselves capable of buying into the disco scene. There is an influx of re-issues and compilations (see the Strut and Soundway labels) that can inform a listener about a scene from virtually any time or place; from classic Italian to the underground Nigerian funk of a Lagos dance-floor over a six year period in the ‘70s. There is also a dreamy brand of nu-Italo disco, one of my current favorites, documented on the Italians Do It Better label’s After Dark compilation. The torchbearers here are the Chromatics and Glass Candy, and it’s generally considered soulless by those people who detest the sounds of drugged-up, sexy, disaffected women at three in the morning. I am not one of those people and HLA are not members of either of the above referenced species; they’re modern day disco-purists. There are no winks here. In fact, one of the pleasures of HLA is recognizing how closely Butler reproduces the time signatures and instrumentation of classic disco. He is clearly inspired by the originals, and routinely name-drops artists that are likely unfamiliar to today’s indie fans and those people who drift outside the circles of classical experimentalists and disco historians (that’s everybody I know).
Secondly, the band has New Weird New York-cool on its side. One can’t help but recall the Factory when looking at the band photo on the inside sleeve; all different races, genders and sexual orientations are represented, as well as clothing styles that just aren’t utilitarian enough to merit consideration in the heartland. Right in the middle of the shot is the incomparable Antony Hagerty (of Antony and the Johnsons); his massive frame and vulnerable face the perfect foil to the thematic elements that Butler will chase throughout the album. If you did not hear Antony’s voice on his Mercury Prize-winning I Am a Bird Now (the cover is a shot of Warhol’s transsexual muse Candy Darling on her deathbed), I can only say that you will not be indifferent to it.
Butler wrote the songs and mans the keyboards on most of the tracks, making him the central force of an album that otherwise has a collective feel. He is wisely alone on vocals only once, dragging down an otherwise fluttering “This Is My Love.” Rotating in and out on vocals are the aforementioned Antony (leading on the album’s two best tracks, “Blind” and closer “Roar”), and two previously low-profile females – Nomi and Kim Ann Foxman. Nomi appears first, galloping through the impossibly catchy “Hercules Theme.” She purrs along with a low-lit, smoky style before the brass circles in. The track builds into a trumpet-led, full-band swell that you know will end with dance-floor claps, nods of acknowledgment and hollers of appreciation.
Kim Ann Foxman arrives for “Athene,” her sound lazy and sexy, comparable to the nu-Italo, dream-disco bands. Her voice, the rhythmic bass and the stray synth combine to make “Athene” one of the more engaging tracks. The phenomenal single “Blind” closes out the album’s strong first half. Here is a disco track that transcends the dance floor; Antony is heavy and disarmingly strong, while Tyler Pope of !!! keeps things moving with a steady, rhythmic bass. The lyrics for “Blind” are Butler’s most compelling; twining starlight, sight and time into metaphors for loneliness and growing apart. It suggests that he has interesting things to say, even when he moves beyond the ancient mythology that envelopes the bulk of the album.
Pacing is crucial on a genre album that marks its territory with momentum and energy. That makes the sixth track, “Iris,” a conspicuously misplaced clunker. It’s dark, flat, suddenly slow, and utterly baffling in its marimba-timed restraint. Follow-up “Easy” is an equally sluggish five minutes of skewed beats, caustic keys and a growling Antony (not the most economical use of his voice). Considering Butler’s inconspicuous vocal presence on “This Is My Love,” things don’t pick up until Antony gets layered in on “Raise Me Up.” But Foxman carries the real weight on the back end of the album, her vocals perfectly matched for the rhythmic bass of “True/False, Fake/Real,” and the dark, pounding synth and distorted, mechanical fuzz of “Classique #2.” Butler and company might have outdone lead single “Blind” with closer “Roar;” another dark synth looper that threads in and out with Antony’s vocals. “Roar” is reminiscent of how Burial closed out his considerably darker electronic masterpiece, Untrue, with the simple but effective repetitive synth patterns of “Raver.”
There’s a thin line between neat, fun stuff and important new sounds. Whether Hercules and Love Affair can hold their ground for a round with the trend-chasing public is not that important right now, as they’ve certainly delivered on the former.
DFA label head Tim Goldsworthy co-produced the album with Andy Butler, and the sound is one of the outstanding achievements here. Goldsworthy programmed the beats throughout, building the structure for Butler’s comprehensive disco wizardry and the fantastic vocal presences. Butler is right at home behind his keyboards, having studied 20th Century classical music alongside late 20th Century “classic” moogs and Arp synths. Every piece can be experienced as if it’s at the forefront; Butler and Goldsworthy exhibit a preternatural ability for knowing when to fall-back on the vocals and when to jack-up the band. Admittedly, this is not so difficult when you have Antony Hagerty and Kim Ann Foxman to fall back on.