Dance music has always been around to offer solace in troubled times. People turned to dance music and the dance floor to temporarily escape when things got rough. In the 1970s, disco was the soundtrack to safe spaces for Black and Latino queer folks who turned to the clubs to leave racism and homophobia behind momentarily. In the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, when Reagan and Thatcher turned their backs on the queer community, dance music provided the necessary release from that dark time of death and ostracization. As Madonna instructed, “Go inside, all you’ll find is inspiration; it’s everywhere that you go.”
But what about dance music that confronts troubled times head one, without looking to offer escapism? Because dance music has historically been succour, it’s not often that dance music has addressed dark times with dark times. That is why the latest project from Hercules and Love Affair, In Amber, is so important. Instead of offering reassurance or solace, the record reflects our unsettling times with themes and lyrics that are challenging, difficult, and worrying. Instead of couching the music in lush neo-disco, In Amber is notable for its inclusion of harder-edged, industrial sounds. The album doesn’t completely abandon dance music, but the sound isn’t smooth or luscious. Instead, many songs, even the poppier numbers, sound as if they were scraped with barbed wire. “Having put out a lot of music that’s helped people celebrate on the dance floor,” Andy Butler, the man behind Hercules and Love Affair, said, “I was like, ‘Wow, this is a very different mood’.”
Butler waited a bit before following up his last effort, 2017’s Omnion. During the ensuing years, the world seems to have gone mad: Brexit, Trump, January 6, the pandemic, police brutality and the killing of unarmed Black men, the war in Ukraine, gun violence, and the ongoing climate crisis have all been fodder for endless doom scrolling. These feel like unsettling times, and in response, Butler has created an empathetic album that feels emblematic of what the collective ‘we’ are going through. In sum, In Amber is a sad album – but the moodiness feels wholly appropriate.
Adding to the charged atmosphere of In Amber is the return of ANOHNI, who first worked with Butler on the first Hercules and Love Affair album, Hercules and Love Affair, in 2008. ANOHNI is a politically charged artist who has used her work as a means of protest. The Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter is a welcome presence on the album, gracing a number of the songs with her dark, distinct vocals. The collaboration between the friends came about from ANOHNI’s desire to work with Butler again: “I had reached out to Andy and suggested that we work on some tracks – the first time we’d done that in several years,” she recounted in an interview.
Though her return to Hercules and Love Affair took a long time, the chemistry ANOHNI shares with Butler sounds unabated, and their shared work sounds fresh and urgent, invigorated by the darker subject matter and sounds they’ve created. Two other key figures responsible for the beauty on In Amber are Elin Eyþórsdóttir and Peter Edward Clarke, otherwise known as Budgie, the legendary drummer from Siouxsie and the Banshees. Budgie’s inclusion in In Amber came about due to ANOHNI’s admiration of his pioneering work with the Creatures.
Though much of the press that followed In Amber’s release made much of the shift in musical direction for Butler, the first track, “Grace”, would indicate that the change would be somewhat subtle. Starting with a pulsing synth and a twirling piano riff, before drums and bass join Butler’s Bowie-esque vocals, the song sounds like a warm homage to 1980s synthpop. It’s a driving number that glides on a melancholic hook, made all the more beautiful with the ethereal vocal work of Eyþórsdóttir. Though it’s not the gaudy disco-pop of Butler’s past, “Grace” does capture the evolution of 1970s disco to 1980s synthy dance-pop.
As a companion to “Grace”, “One” is another moment on In Amber that has its soul on the dancefloor. Featuring a gutsy vocal performance by ANOHNI (who seems to be channeling the soulful disco divas of the 1970s wonderfully), “One” works on a catchy and sinewy groove and is a high point on the album and is evidence of how Butler and ANOHNI can develop and grow with their dance sounds, pulling in harder, less campy elements to their brand of dance-pop. “Grace” is the album’s tribute to 1980s New Romantic pop whilst “One” is a muscular nod to disco-soul. Importantly, even though both songs are obviously inspired by older forms of dance music, they don’t feel redundant or lazy.
But In Amber doesn’t just look to the growth of Butler’s love of dance music. Over the 12 tracks, Butler looks to different sounds and textures to create a thick, heavy-sounding record that draws in sounds of punk and 1990s industrial rock. Butler and ANOHNI deepen their sound in response to the heavier topics explored with the lyrics. (ANOHNI delved into social issues with her 2016 solo album, Hopeless.) The tracks that reunited the two are highly accomplished feats in expressing rage and meaning through song.
In “Contempt for You”, ANOHNI croons over a crawling mass of noise and marching percussion, snarling, “Sure I’m glad / I survived / But I’ve got nothing but / Contempt for you.” The strutting glam rock of “Christian Prayers” rages against hypocrisy as an onslaught of drums and electric guitars roar behind her. With “Killing His Family”, Butler and ANOHNI look to a strange collage of UK soul, 1990s house, alternative rock, and Industrial, as she channels anger, despair, and rage.
Because so much of In Amber feels like a reaction: a reaction to Butler’s older music, to personal and private angst, to world events, listening to the record is an intense experience. Though Butler never loses sight of his pop hooks (even the most challenging moments on the album have melody), he has done an admirable job of growing musically, forcing his music to grow. It’s a moving and bracing exercise in creativity and is ultimately very rewarding – if not always easy – listening experience.