Brooklyn scenester, classics polymath, DJ and producer Andrew Butler is on a one-man mission to raise up disco. This maligned form of dance music suffered from the ’80s fallout of Aids, Donna Summer’s religious visions and, if we’re honest, Boney M. If any genre needed rehabilitating, disco is surely at the front of the queue.
Butler, on Hercules And Love Affair’s intoxicating, pathos-soaked but thoroughly modern eponymous debut, makes clear his intent to return gay disco to the pantheon of art forms. His method for so doing relies in equal parts on referencing Greek myths and their gay storylines, and utilising a veritable tombola of guest stars in a soundscape that calls to mind Divine and Yazoo.
Most significant of the guest stars is Antony Hegarty, of Antony And The Johnsons fame, who contirbutes androgynously soulful disco diva vocals to half of the album, including the sublime debut single Blind – still the best commercial dance track released this year. Hegarty, though English by birth, these days haunts similar venues to the rest of Butler’s circle in NYC – late hours gay bars and DFA’s head office.
Tim Goldsworthy, of the DFA, is the man contributing the drum production to the record. Much of the rest of the musicianship comes from Butler, utilising an extraordinary range of keyboards that sometimes sound like mini-keyed Casios. He’s a keen student of history, for not only do we get the band’s name and the song title Athene, but it’s clear Butler has one of those record collections that simply fills a house.
Blind, recorded earlier than the rest of these songs, is integral to the record. Lyrically it charts the evolution of optimism to realism as Hegarty recalls childlike innocence with the line “As a child I knew that the stars could only get brighter, and we would get closer, leaving this darkness far behind”. But later in the song comes the suckerpunch: “Now that I’m older, the stars should light upon my face, but when I find myself alone… I feel like I am blind.” An addictively understated trumpet line anchors the song, which shambles along for over six minutes, though it doesn’t feel that long.
Raise Me Up finds Hegarty at full power. Black Box‘s Ride On Time is the unlikely reference point: “I was dreaming of Black Box, and the way those songs just drive you crazy, fill up your heart and make you want to jump around,” he says. His vocals here are every bit as shopstopping as the late ’80s Italdisco number.
It’s not all full power diva belting. You Belong beguilingly pulls in Inner City‘s Good Life as a starting point. True False/Fake Real sounds like a long lost children’s TV show theme tune that grew old and world-weary on the dance circuit. Hercules Theme, another pivotal track, causes arms to flail and hips to swing as it builds layer upon layer of uplifting trumpets and cymbals.
Alongside Hegarty and Butler for the ride are transsexual scenester Nomi and Butler’s long-term party-starting cohort Kim Ann Foxmann, the latter of whom signs narced-up vocals on Athene. Butler himself takes the mic on This Is My Love.
Some of the record’s slower numbers are the tracks that grow with repeated listens. Iris is gorgeous, while Easy, with its echoey seductive atmosphere and Hegarty displaying his impressive lower range, is easily the most languidly satisfying pace the album musters. And the album opener Time Will’s call and response vocals, again from Hegarty, provide arguably the most narcotic moment of the record.
But it’s the big numbers, when Hegarty steps up to the microphone, that reveal Hercules And Love Affair as a project that captures not only the full range of moods on a night out on the tiles, but also the full range of human emotions from the start of a night to its end. Anyone expecting more of I Am A Bird Now should be pleasantly surprised by Hegarty as a disco muse. It sounds here like a part he was born to play, and he plays it with distinction.
It’s not as radio or festival friendly as last year’s LCD Soundsystem record Sound Of Silver, but Hercules And Love Affair’s artsy vision explores noirish areas that record feared to go. If it doesn’t scare you off, you’re likely to love it and wonder what Butler will come up with next.