The aesthetic of disco music has always been a contentious issue for serious musicians and listeners. Those steeped in concert halls, academia, or underground music can easily dismiss it as conspicuous, apathetic, and vapid; something to please the club-going masses. Having Hunter S. Thompson (who once quipped, “I feel the same way about disco as I do about herpes”) on their side makes them somewhat smug, I suppose.
Working in an electronic music lab during college, this opinion was something Andy Butler—the brainchild of Hercules and Love Affair—regularly endured and confronted. He was often ostracized for his taste in illegitimate dance music, despite the revealing links between minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich and electronic music. The openness and willingness of the disco that Butler loved wasn’t being reciprocated. So he set out to make it relevant and emotional.
8 Aug 2008: Fillmore East at Irving Plaza New York, NY
The last three months have been a whirlwind of hype, accolades, and touring for Brooklyn, New York dance collective Hercules and Love Affair—Butler’s disco incarnation. Butler chose the group name after taking a class on “myths of homosexuality in Greek art,” and begun a life-long enchantment with Greek mythology. Particularly captivating was realizing—as Butler describes in a Musicomh.com interview—“the strongest man on earth (Hercules) losing his beloved, another man, being completely wrecked and distraught, vulnerable because of it. I thought that was a really beautiful myth.”
Having DFA records co-founder Tim Goldsworthy share production credits with Butler on their eponymous March debut, Hercules and Love Affair obtained official dance-punk validation. But Butler, it seems, is more interested in recognition for more profound things like disco and house music itself. “For people to say that dance music is not legitimate, to me, is so preposterous,” he has explained. “So I do have, in some ways, an agenda.”
Helping to get that point across on the album is Antony Hegarty—of Antony and the Johnsons. His vocals (“Blind”, “Time Will”, “Raise You Up”) exude a velvety sensuality but with an asexual timbre. The resulting pensiveness permeates an ordinarily glib beat, jettisoning dissipation for cerebral cadences. Sadly, Antony was absent at the Fillmore East as he was at Hercules’ live debut in May at Studio B.
Instead, the other two vocalists on the album, Nomi and Kim Ann Foxman, were evocative as Butler’s sirens, especially during the encore and “Hercules Theme”. Nomi, the glittering tinsel to Kim Ann’s moderate demeanor, was dramatic as the crowd fixated on her and the other flashy dancers. But both singers enticed anyone who wasn’t already dancing to let go and move.
The image of strong men unabashedly expressing themselves was captured on tank tops the band members wore onstage, though somewhat ironically. An iconic cartoon image of Hercules was superseded by the word “Banjee,” thus suggesting Hercules as not only tough and gay, but Black or Latino as well.
Like the poetic nuances of the ensemble’s name, vulnerability (vocals) augmented the group’s brute force (beats and production). Live, the susceptibility of the vocals was further complimented by a tight yet personifying brass section, while the drummer and bass player emphasized raw, unyielding power.
Unlike a host of electronic and dance acts who repeat, beat for beat, their turntable mechanics in a languid routine, Hercules translated into a motley crew of horns, bass, drums, synthesizers, vocalists, and dancers on stage. They also thrived, symbiotically, off the hand-waving, dance-stepping hysteria happening on and off stage. This is part of their appeal; because behind those effusive beats and lyrics lies an ensemble of breathing musicians, as precise as any sample but roiling with life and sentiment.
Perhaps, like Achilles’ rage over the death of his close friend Patroclus in The Iliad, thus inciting the fall of Troy, Butler’s anger over disco’s demise and lack of credibility is manifested in Hercules and Love Affair bringing sentiment to the dance floor. Hercules’ beats have already permeated the fashion realm via Chanel and it is indeterminable where Butler’s mythological muse will take the collective. But he’s in no rush. As long as viscous funk bass throbs with hedonistic perfection, dueling horn lines tease and build, and transient house melodies linger, an eager audience awaits a sentient art form.