Available on: Moshi Moshi
There’s a strange, steely discipline to what Hercules & Love Affair do. Usually dance acts with a very particular schtick tend to broaden it out a bit by album number three – and that especially goes for those who’ve spent a considerable amount of time touring; after all there’s nothing like playing the same songs night-in-night-out to increase the urge to get a bit of variety into proceedings. But here we are with H&LA’s third album, and absolutely nothing has changed. Everything is about rigorous re-creation of house (OK, and garage and a touch of techno) music circa 1986-91, the tempo rarely strays far from 120bpm, the drum machines and 303 basslines are entirely authentic and the guest vocalists do a sterling job of recreating the blend of high camp and raw emotion of the earliest house divas.
Which is all fine as far as it goes. If you can recreate a sound as convincingly as this then why not do it? Retro is not a crime. The dancefloor at 3am doesn’t care if a track’s a simulacrum or not, if the acid lines gurgle and sing as convincingly and the songwriting’s as strong as Gustaph’s on ‘Do you Feel the Same’, to take one particularly shining example. Even real hoary period pieces like the Fairlight orchestral stabs on ‘I Try to Talk to You’ avoid being irritatingly kitschy, in this case because of John Grant’s swooning turn and some spectacular Def Mix-tastic pianos. Perhaps the cream of the crop are the three appearances from Rouge Mary, whose androgynous voice brings real funk to the New Jersey organs of ‘Think’ and the Detroit clatter of ‘5.43 to Freedom’.
It’s the third and best Rouge Mary track, though, which really throws into relief the big issue with The Feast of the Broken Heart. ‘The Key’, which closes the album, is absolutely stunning and is also the one track that breaks from house music. Production- and songwriting-wise it’s still located somewhere around 1989, but its rolling cut-up breakbeat and a glorious Rico Rodriguez-ish trombone line that gets all contrapuntal with the resonant 303 line are completely sui generis. It makes it impossible not to think about how great H&LA could be if they loosened some of their iron discipline and reverence for Todd Terry, Blaze, Derrick May and the rest, and did their own thing a little bit more.
Even a tiny unexpected twang of spaghetti western guitar on the Krystle Warren-featuring ‘The Light’ is quite transformative, but it’s an all-too-rare digression. Given all the different guest vocals, this album really works on the level that a great old house compilation does, which is not a bad thing in itself – there’s plenty to enjoy and plenty of variety within the constraints that H&LA impose on themselves. But there’s very little sense of a uniting personality, and you’re left wondering how genuinely great an album H&LA might make, how much more they would feel like a band rather than a conceptual project, if they cut loose as much as they do on ‘The Key’.