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Review: Hercules & Love Affair, 'Omnion'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

Anyone who's engaged disco with the same depth and seriousness that Hercules & Love Affair ringmaster Andrew Butler has, knows that by its nature and at its finest, this is a music of balances made in the spirit of losing one's balance. And among disco's glories is how these contrasting fundamentals play out: the celebratory and the elegiac, the social politics and personal emotions, pop songwriting and club functionality, the traditionally soulful and the technologically modern.

Since the beginning, Hercules & Love Affair records have not simply acknowledged these contradictory elements but aspired to find meaning in them. Where so much contemporary disco is an exercise in genre or affectation – or worse, nostalgia for a utopia that never was – Butler permeates his with more broadly accepted currency. Though it unabashedly began as a classicist's pop-house take on the contemporary dance-floor, and is still rooted in this world, H&LA music navigates the pathos of today's life through a panoply of voices and ideas representative of the gender-nonconforming diversity of Butler's community, tweaking and updating the norms throughout.

Omnion, H&LA's fourth album, continues tipping the scales in modernity's favor and disorienting the script. You actually have to take a step back from a track like "Rejoice," voiced by longtime collaborator Rouge Mary, to recognize it as a sibling of great gospel-disco numbers of yore. That's because the industrialized dirt of the mix — percolating, sequenced keyboards, the synthetic chafe of the vocal filter, the screeching stabs of background voices — is a new touch on sanctified old-school uplift. In more clichéd hands, "Epilogue" would be a familiar type of album-closer, beatless and doleful, with Gustaph, another longtime H&LA vocalist, fronting a children's choir while offering broadly stroked social empathy. But here it sounds like the punctuation of a classic synthesizer sci-fi soundtrack and a love letter to The Resistance at the same time. Both speak to the production presence of New York techno engineer, Phil "The Butcha" Moffa, who is part of Omnion's secret sauce.

Contrast these progressive notes with Butler's ongoing desire to communicate through beat-wise pop songs, interpreted by nuanced, boldface voices. Sharon Van Etten's thoughtful confession floats through the synths and brass of the aspirational title track, damning gender pronouns and ascending a sugar-sweet, cloudy chorus. The Horrors lead singer Faris Badwan rides a thick bassline as he updates classic freestyle vibes on the sexually-charged and distant "Controller." Later on the album he recreates Pet Shop Boys synth-pop vibes with EDM production touches on the song "Through Your Atmosphere." Then there's "Are You Still Certain?," a collaboration with the Lebanese rock band Mashrou' Leila and its singer Hamed Sinno, which bumps pleasantly on a spine of soft keyboards, funk guitar and bonus percussion. The Arabic vocals, in the midst of all this extreme Western-centricity, is a wonderful surprise as well as a reminder that Beirut's disco scene was once the stuff of legends.

The clearest example of Butler's use of disco's paradoxes lies in a trio of songs at the album's center, all of which seemingly look beyond the rhythm of the night for their purpose. On "Fools Wear Crowns," the only Omnion track that Butler sings himself, and which, he confessed to Pitchfork, documents his escape from substance abuse, and "Lies," wherein Gustaph addresses something like a truth-telling conscience, the backbeats don't kick in until the tracks are a third of the way through, punctuating the ornamental role these beats serve with more explicitly diaristic purposes.

At first, the beat also seems secondary to "Running," a tour de force featuring the vocal trio Sísý Ey and the Kirke String Quartet. Yet the sonics that stitch together this Butler lament are motley — tribal electronics, swooping strings, the torch-soul incantations of Icelandic sisters — and experiencing this counter intuitive fit is otherworldly.

What's contextually understandable about "Running" on Omnion dissolves when heard outside of the album — which, in today's listening experience, all songs must, especially those by club-oriented artists. And while one imagines only the most adventurous DJ will find room in their set for "Running" — maybe deep into a sunrise — its balanced address of matters at once literal and metaphysical is a perfect modern expression of disco's timelessness.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Piotr Orlov