Hercules and Love Affair the name itself combines images of strength and vulnerability, masculinity and femininity, as well as a classic disco troupe. Their music on their self-titled album debut followed suit. Strident beats but sweetness at the core. Music with a plan of attack but an identity as fluid as that of its creators. A gloriously burnished fusion of three decades of dance, from disco to house, acid to synth-pop, Derrick May to Giorgio Moroder (and let's not forget Yazoo), but sounding like no other dance record before or since.
And now they've gone and done it again.
The troupe's second album Blue Songs represents the best that dance music can get still bursting with freshness while in touch with its roots. As mainman Andy Butler says, "It's a softer record in some ways, and at other moments a more aggressive record too." The album also reveals more about his world and his songwriting, resulting in a more honest, and yet more universal, record.
But first Hercules has got himself almost a brand new Love Affair. Three years after Butler took his first frontline of singers on tour, there are new voices to go with the new sounds, new directions, a new record label and a new label of his own. Kim Ann Foxman is now joined by debutantes Shaun Wright and Aerea Negrot, from America and Venezuela respectively. Anyone witnessing the new line up can vouch for how the triumvirate of singers has a wonderful, natural symmetry, of personalities and vocal style. Plus all the singers on Blue Songs including Andy are right there on stage.
Given Antony Hegarty's solo career his vocals featured on breakthrough single Blind this just wasn't possible on HALA's debut in 2008. Antony's presence represented a real touchstone for Andy; the pairing was a modern twist on the Vince Clarke/ Alison Moyet deal, what with Yazoo's club-pop pinnacle 'Situation' thrilling a pre-teen Andy. The singularly named and huskily toned Nomi and Andy's long-term pal Kim Ann were Antony's vocal cohorts; even Andy chipped in once or twice, though not on stage, where the live line-up also embraced brass, totaling eight bouncing bodies. The album was hugely acclaimed; it was New York Times' Breakthrough Album of 2008 and in Pitchfork's Top Ten albums of the year. But it wasn't all going Andy's way. "I was new to the whole touring experience," says Butler, "and a lot of responsibility, and we didn't have a huge budget. I also saw people were creative in their own right, which they pursued."
After a solid year of touring, Andy began to assemble phase two and start all over again. To begin with, he moved back to Denver "I wanted a quieter existence when I wasn't touring" and parted ways too with the NYC-based DFA label, which had released the first album, and signed to the cutting-edge UK indie Moshi Moshi. He also parted ways with DFA's Tim Goldsworthy who'd produced the first album. Andy first worked in San Francisco with the vastly experienced Mark Pistel (Meat Beat Manifesto/Consolidated), "then someone mentioned Patrick Pulsinger. I'd grown up hearing his name. His legend preceded him; that he was the resident DJ at the Limelight [in New York] during the Disco 2000 Club Kids era, but that he also put out seminal techno records."
The Austrian DJ/producer's CV also embraces the Cheap Records label, his own house/ electro/experimental fusions and performances with Patrick Wolf, DJ Hell and Mark Stewart among others. In other words, a smorgasbord of sound to match Andy's. The timing was spot on too.
Andy calls the process of making Blue Songs, "a very colourful and interesting ride. It wasn't just a simple question of recording, but also progressing. I wanted to explore my voice as a songwriter and use different instruments, ones I wouldn't have used on the first album, like a clarinet, or an acoustic guitar. There's a very lyrical quality to a lot of the music on this record."
That's instantly nailed by Blue Songs' six-minute opener 'Painted Eyes'. Originally written for Chanel's mobile art exhibition in New York, it's, "a bit epic and out there. Aesthetically, it does a fair job of summing up the record."
'Painted Eyes' is sung by Aerea: "She's a performance artist with a phenomenal octave range." Aerea also features on the Moroder-tainted 'Visitor' - "my favourite song to play live" says Andy - and the simmering 'Answers Come In Dreams', which isn't quite disco, electro, house or techno but definitely Hercules And Love Affair.
And then there's the equally indefatigable Shaun Wright, spotted by Andy at a Hercules And Love Affair show, given his Sylvester/Rick James beaded hairdo and gold lam. The pair hooked up after the show when Shaun revealed he could sing too. As Andy explains "he sent me a demo and I knew he knew house music, and he was as soulful as shit."
Shaun is the star of the tranquil Boy Blue with its acoustic guitar and all-round '70s soul-folk vibe. At the other end of the spectrum, he fronts the irresistible 'Falling' - "the most traditionally straightforward, Motown disco number on the album," reckons Andy and the equally contagious 'My House', with its chatterbox samples, squelchy bassline and rousing chorus, and scatting care of Kim Ann and Aerea.
With these new voices/faces, we mustn't forget Kim Ann, who sings 'I Can't Wait', and co-sings the stark 'Leonora' with Andy. She's clearly grown in confidence since the first album, to the point where she will be releasing her own music on Andy's new label Mr Intl.
The album's guest vocalist this time round is Bloc Party's Kele Orekeke on 'Step Up', the album's poppiest house track, Andy reckons. "Kele sounds like a great '80s British singer, that kind of classic painful boy voice. And he's not afraid to let it crack and show a lot of emotion, which I love."
Andy himself has one song to himself, namely the title track, which is a revelation in more ways than one. Musically, Andy pursues his love of rhythm beyond traditional dance, mining one of his favourites from yesteryear, the exotica of Eno's subtly adventurous 1975 album Another Green World. "There's definitely a psychedelic, ambient, mellow mood created by 'Blue Songs'. It's cyclical and weird, and I got to use a clarinet on it!" Lyrically too, it's Andy showing another side to his complex personality. "A lot of the lyrics, which I've written all of, are a matter of processing for me. It just happens to be that I'm a dance music fanatic, but I've had very challenging periods in my life. My teenage years were at times chaotic, but at the same time, when I totally got to know who I was. If I didn't have this release, I probably would have been a very dark and sad character."
Happiness and sadness; it's all there in the album finale, It's Alright, beautifully sung by Kim Ann. Most know the track from the Pet Shop Boys cover rather but it's the 1986 Sterling Void original that is Andy's inspiration. "The warehouse era that I knew was also a time of over-indulgence and excess, but it had a utopian vision, that with this community and music, you could ascend to another place, and that message is in that track. It was always the last song played at the party, regardless of what party it was. I wanted to take it down to 90bpm and have it be just piano, voice and guitar."
'It's Alright' is an incredibly brave way to end what is often an exuberant dance record, full of joy and release, assembled by what Andy calls, "a collection of very different people who have very marginal identities, and normalising them, but in a good way. We have Latino, Afro-American, Philippino, gay, lesbian, a this and a that. But the most refreshing thing about this group, especially right now, is that we're extremely laid back."
That is until the touring begins again, though this time it's just Andy and Mark Pistel behind the computer, keyboards and singers. And at the same time, Andy is putting together releases for his Mr Intl label, his way of pursuing a classic era: "I don't want anything that sounds pre '85 or post= '94," he says. "It's really about the golden days of house music and techno. In one sense, it's for my DJ purposes, so I can evoke that sentiment and create that ominous, deep, dark, soulful, ecstatic mood." Which is exactly where Blue Songs comes in. Strength and vulnerability, masculinity and femininity combined. A right old love affair...