It’s been about two years since Los Angeles has played host to the amazing disco-house revivalists known as Hercules & Love Affair who came out here in promotion of their fantastic self-titled debut album back in 2008. The album, if you haven’t heard it, is mind-blowing, but the live show managed to elevate the listening experience to a different level, one that made me feel like I was witnessing something special happen. A feeling I hadn’t had since seeing Roni Size and Reprazant in ’98 debunk the notion that electronic music (especially in those rave days) had no soul and was the work of non-musical computer geeks, but with a full band in tow ended up sonically decimating the space and blowing minds in the process. Hercules & Love Affair managed to do the same, but whereas Roni Size brought to the stage the frenetic sound of Drum & Bass, Hercules revitalized Disco in a new way that groups like LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, & !!! had only managed to toy with.
Don’t make the mistake of being fooled by the Disco tag and assume that this Disco is in the same vein as Abba, Donna Summer, or any other overplayed acts you may have heard at a wedding because this isn’t music to dance to and forget about. The lyrics are serious, the vocals are emotive, and the music is euphoric, not formulaic and gaudy like popular disco became at the end of the seventies. In H&LA the bass lines are bouncy, the high hats poppin’ (the perfect foundation for a disco act), and vocal duties are taken up by whoever fits the mood of the groove.
At their show at the Echoplex, much of the sound that characterized the first album was thankfully still evident after a year of change to the group’s personnel and live show that ended with the departures of everyone but two original members, Andrew Butler (songwriter) & vocal stalwart Kim Ann Foxman to man the Hercules juggernaut through to their next phase. The touring band that originally consisted of a horn section, a bass player, keyboards, and a drummer has been replaced with a trinity of vocalists (Kim Ann with newcomers Aerea Negrot and Shaun Wright) and an array of electronic gizmo’s (drum machines & sequencers) under the guidance of Andrew Butler and DJ Mark Pistel (formerly of Meat Beat Manifesto). With all of the sound elements being controlled at the back of the stage, it left a lot of room upfront for the vocalists to move about and get loose. Early in the show it was apparent that the vocalists needed a few verses to get comfortable in the mix as the kinks in their mic levels were worked out, but once that was accomplished the room quickly became a sweaty hot box of bodies in motion all chugging to the rhythm of Hercules & Love Affair. The setlist consisted of upbeat new material that will be featured on their second album, Blue Songs as well as a few carried over from the last album (Anthene, Blind), with the only notable difference being the sound of the new voices while the essence of H&LA’s music is still intact putting to rest my worries that the departures in the last year would mess with the quality of the groups output. Listening to the instrumentation and what I can discern of the lyrics, nothing about their sound seems to be lost, but I’ll only be sure about this once the album finally drops in January ’11. Moreover, the group seems to have gained something with their stripped down setup by making the sound more conducive to a club experience manipulated by only two as opposed to eight. The exclusion of competing personalities in the rhythm section opens the floor up to the vocalists to engage the audience with their presence and the emotive allure of the lyrics, which Aerea Negrot was especially able to do solely on the range and power of her voice. Although I do miss the glamour and vocals of former vocalist Nomi Ruiz, Aerea Negrot (like a cross between Ricky from My So-Called Life and pop-singer Pink, but more muscular) has a vocal power and range that seems even more suited to the transcendent quality of the new songs. For the duration of the set, the music was mostly non-stop except for an intermission for band introductions, but aside from that one stop the girls kept the energy up by saying things like “What time is it? It’s time to jump” and other uplifting phrases that resulted in hands in the air and constant movement from my area in the front and as far back as I could see. It was a solid performance that made me feel elated afterward, mostly because I danced my ass off the whole time in that hot room, but also because I felt blissfully content afterward. Good shows can have that effect! It ended up being so hot in that room that it compelled Kim Ann to say that it was “hotter than a bag of dicks” (however hot that might be?!?) after a version of “Blind” in which both Aerea and Shaun traded verses.
After their solid performance, H&LA manages to be more than just another dance group pounding out the 4/4 bangers. Their songs are well crafted with captivating lyrics rampant with themes of love, longing, and regret that ride well on top of the physical groove promulgated by the rhythm sections instrumentation. Contextually, their music is ripe for the physicality of the dancefloor or for a personal headphone journey because the songs are not looped into oblivion (like typical dance music releases) and have solid arrangements that leave the listener wanting to hear more. The new songs that were on display tonight at the Echoplex seem to only solidify that Andrew Butler’s group is a force to be reckoned with and that the new album will only serve to enhance his reputation amongst the fans and DJ’s who crave dance music of this quality.
Aside from Hercules & Love Affair’s headlining set, openers Teen Inc. set the stage for the evening with a ridiculously impressive set that made me feel like I was watching Prince at First Avenue circa ’84, but instead it was L.A. in 2010. These guys first came to my attention a week prior when I reviewed them (for this site) when they opened for Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and Puro Instinct and they intrigued me then, but I mentioned there live act would have been enhanced with a live drummer, as opposed to the drum machine they played too. For their show with H&LA, the drum machine was gone and a live drummer took its place and it seemed to imbue the band with a stronger edge, allowing their musicianship to really shine. Although the band reminds me of Prince, so much is going on with their sound that all I can say is it has to be experienced to be fully explained. They manage to encapsulate the future funk leanings of Dam-Funk and the dreamy haze of Washed Out, but strive beyond either of those comparisons because their songs are far more complex in arrangement. I can only hope a full length is forthcoming sooner rather than later to supplement their only release to date that can be purchased via iTunes or on a 7” inch via their site (http://teen-inc.net/). A version of the Sheila E./Prince collaboration “A Love Bizarre” was a highlight and awesome inclusion in a set that got the crowd properly warmed up for the main act. If the chance arises to catch the Teen Inc. experience, don’t miss it because they are an act you don’t want to pass up!