Since their explosive entry onto the scene with the 2008 debut single “Blind,” Hercules and Love Affair, the project and brainchild of Andy Butler, has had a reputation for being at the forefront of house and nu-disco, pushing and expanding the boundaries of club music.
In Amber (★★★★☆) is a bold and abrupt shift, marking Butler’s attempt to explore anger and anxiety, emotions he saw as “off-limits” to the genre, a prohibition he seems to have taken as a challenge and an invitation.
Butler is no stranger to experimentation or to exploring complicated themes in his work, but the uniqueness of In Amber is apparent on its lead single “Grace” which dropped in February, marking an end to the five-year silent spell since their last album, Omnion.
“Grace” opens the album with infectious bass and tight vocals from Icelandic artist Elin Ey. “One” is another standout, arguably the most danceable track on the album with a deep, urgent beat and synth breakdowns that weave together flawlessly with Anohni’s incredible vocals.
The album’s singles are not quite adequate preparation for the depth or the cerebral edge that Hercules and Love Affair bring to In Amber, or for the dramatic step away from the more straightforwardly club-ready music that Butler’s project is better known for.
For his part, Butler has singled out “rage” and “existential contemplation” as particular preoccupations, which are reflected in the album’s complex and expansive soundscapes, and the gothy and industrial elements that appear and reappear throughout.
Dance music is a wide and diverse genre, of course, and they have not exactly abandoned it, but with the moody, dramatic turn he is stretching the possibilities of what it can be.
Unsurprisingly, Butler’s friend and co-producer Anohni all but makes the album her own, defining and setting apart its sound in the same way her powerful, idiosyncratic vocals defined their early sound on their celebrated breakout single, “Blind.”
Reuniting with her for the first time since 2008 provides some spectacular payoff throughout the album, and she excels on tracks like “The Eyes of the Father,” packing emotions into them that range from despondent to furious. Shifting between singing and voiceover over the drums and distorted industrial sounds of the intense penultimate track, “Poisonous Storytelling,” she commands attention in a way that only she can.
On one of the album’s most visceral tracks, “Contempt for You,” she is full of pointed rage in a way that can’t help but sound uplifting, repeating the lyric, “Sure am glad I survived/but I’ve got nothing but contempt for you.”
Anohni’s presence looms large on In Amber, to the benefit of the tracks that feature her, but to the detriment of many of the tracks that do not.
Ely’s vocals are solid enough, if a little anemic by comparison on her tracks, and Butler holds his own on “Gates of Separation,” sounding echoing and distant.
Anohni’s absence is perhaps most pronounced on the album closer, “Repent,” which ends In Amber on a disappointingly low-energy note. “Repent” is not a bad track, per se. It is complex and richly produced in a way that is of a piece with the other tracks, but Butler’s barely-augmented vocals feels lacking coming immediately after the surreal gravitas of “Poisonous Storytelling.”
Hercules and Love Affair has always been a project that is more than the sum of its parts, and Anohni, while stellar, is not the only contributor that makes In Amber shine. Elin Ely holds her own on “Grace” but also lends “Dissociation” its own kind of ethereal beauty.
On Anohni’s suggestion, Butler brought on Budgie (of Siouxsie and the Banshees) as a drummer, a decision that most obviously pays off in the urgent, precise drumming on “Christian Prayer” and “Contempt For You,” but Butler has also alluded to Budgie’s influence on its direction behind the scenes.
In Amber is a surprising album. In its pronounced shift away from dance music, it is not at all what someone with passing familiarity with Hercules’ earliest work would expect, but it nevertheless demands attention and rewards a close, thoughtful listen.
Taken as a meditation on fear, anger, mistrust and anxiety delivered with the expert artistry that Hercules and Love Affair have been known for across the project’s many iterations, it succeeds beautifully.
In Amber is available for sales and on streaming services starting Friday, June 17. Visit www.herculesandloveaffair.net.
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