This is what Ladytron's Light And Magic should have been -- the moody, lonely, arty city-hipster dance album of the 2000s. Hercules And Love Affair is an extremely emotional album, to the point where it starts to seem a bit unhealthy. The songs make ostentatious, preening displays of loneliness and sorrow. They're dramatic to the point of abstraction, losing resemblance to reality. Or, at least, if anybody were to act this way in real life -- perhaps someone with a lot of idle time to spend hyper-focused on every minute detail of their own emotions -- they'd probably be very difficult to get along with.
But it sure makes for brilliant theatre. It's like looking at an abstract allegory of "sorrow" or "passion." The emotions are so exaggerated and decadent that they take on a classical quality. The album's use of the Greek theme (songs reference Hercules, Athena and Iris) is a very inspired touch -- Greek tragedy is basically made out of the same material. I even wish there were more of this. Just think what they could do with the story of Achilles!
It might take a couple of listens to see just how dark the album is, since it is very fast-paced and partially rooted in hedonistic disco music. Even the slower songs have a very firm, up-tempo rhythmic backbone. Nonetheless, of all the songs, only "Hercules Theme" sounds jaunty and cheerful, and the vocalist's sexy mewling actually sounds like fun. Everywhere else, though, there is no salvation in sensuality. The reverberating, nocturnal synth line in "You Belong" leads to the tortured chorus (and neat bit of gender-bending), "You belong to him tonight / there is nothing I can do," sung in a half-plaintive, half-snarling tone. Opener "Time Will" is a long, seductive build-up that eventually culminates in a burning, operatic jilted-lover's lament from Antony Hegarty.
Musically, the disco connection is the most obvious. Chugging seventies bass appears in "Athene," "This Is My Love" and "Raise Me Up." For the techno connoisseur, though, the album offers some of the most authentic Chicago house and Detroit techno around. The first clue is the chilled synth at the very end of "Time Will," which is pure Derrick May (the vignette "Rest" on Innovator sounds exactly like this). The bassline in "Easy" is another vintage Chicago touch. Eighties techno was built on these mechanical-sounding rhythms, each processed note awkwardly separated from the others. (The rattling, spacy drum track in "Easy" is something else entirely, though -- perhaps closer to early nineties IDM?) But the real payoff is at the end -- the bonus track "Classique #2" is a perfect Detroit-style, instrumental twelve-inch club single. It's got the no-frills beat, the mechanical bass mentioned above, and a funky staccato synth lead, looped endlessly, with occasional vocal samples and long stretches where the melody breaks and the rhythm grinds by itself.
The vocal duties are handled in the collective style favoured by Massive Attack and Gorillaz, with four vocalists. Their styles contrast very well. All the most fiery and dramatic vocal parts are handled by Antony Hegarty. Compared to him, Kim Ann Foxman is a much more limited singer, but the production skillfully strengthens her voice by mixing it down and blurring it with the music. This quieter approach sounds relaxing and dreamy, a warmer respite in between Hegarty's nerves-on-edge histrionics. "Iris" even encourages one to look outside oneself and share the moment with someone else, a valuable reminder in the midst of all the exhibitionistic passion flying around.
The album also makes extensive use of a horn section, in nearly every song. The jazz-house combination always sounds smooth and sophisticated, but here it also effectively plays against the theatricality of the songs. It sort of makes one think of the seedy underside of glitzy, vaudeville-era show business -- ostentatious artificiality onstage, lachrymose despair backstage, with the two often blending together, so that the despair is communicated using the flamboyant onstage style.
Sometimes all of these elements come together in the same song. "This Is My Love" is not as attention-grabbing as "You Belong" or "Blind," Andrew Butler's vocal is very low-key and modest. After the fey first verse, the disco rhythm kicks in and the song bounces along at a breezy pace. In the second chorus, a droning synth wafts in after each vocal line, creating a melancholy counterpoint. Then, there is a long instrumental outro where subtle rhythmic layers are added around the bassline. This gentle, unassuming song grows into arguably the most pleasant and musically satisfying moment on the album.
Really the only bum track in the whole lot is "True False/Fake Real." It's a competent enough instrumental; I think I'd like it more without the voice repeating the song title. But the bonus tracks "Classique #2" and "Roar" are better as instrumentals, with much tighter club rhythms, and really, the title isn't clever enough to warrant repetition.
However, that leaves eleven tracks of varying degrees of brilliance on the CD. Like other great electronic albums of the 2000s such as Luomo's Vocalcity and The Knife's Silent Shout, Hercules And Love Affair was made by people who knew a lot about classic techno and house, and were able to reinterpret and build on it. Highly recommended.