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Three Kings

A Trio of Recent Releases Offer Different Versions of The Tight, Almost Perfect Album

Jess Harvell

By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/14/2008

Torche, Sword and Stinking Lizaveta

Rock N Roll Hotel, May 15, Washington

Given that the English language includes such comically idiosyncratic words as "sesquipedalian" (given to using long words) and "hallux" (the big toe), surely it has room for one that means "sad happy," that peculiarly melancholic but still upbeat mood that so much great art instills. Dance-music project Hercules and Love Affair nails this vibe 20 seconds into "Time Will," the lead-off track on the group's self-titled debut. A simple series of rich, staccato beats underscores Antony (as in, "and the Johnsons") Hegarty's mournful "Don't lie to me, don't make it up," his velvety vibrato making the line fall somewhere between a desperate entreaty and a threat backed by tears. Soon the song flowers into motion as if a water fountain suddenly turned on, and even though the pace picks up and the production plushes up, "Time Will" remains a song with one foot in the sad, the other in the happy, and the body reluctant to let either take over entirely.

The song sounds as if Yaz and Arthur Russell had a baby boy who grew up into a lovely young man who loves animals and hates his peers. And Hercules and Love Affair--led by New York DJ Andy Butler with vocal help from Hegarty and the enigmatic Nomi and Kim Ann Foxman--maintain this vibe over 10 smartly arranged and cagily paced songs on its DFA debut, without ever stagnating in sound. It's also a reminder that disco has more to offer than the patina of faux decadence. If Glass Candy is what happens when you take all the gay, black, and Puerto Rican out of disco--leaving nothing but white people, blue eye shadow, and energy drinks--Hercules and Love Affair recalls disco before it became a beat preset, before it became camp, before it signified anything at all, really.

Butler's daft touch here, though, is the album's overall success. Its 10 songs swim by in a mere 52 minutes, leaving very little fat and nudging you through it with a smile. It's disarmingly insouciant and richly intimate, mining the smart, innovative pockets of an oft-derided era that gets tossed out with the dirty bathwater of Studio 54's 1980s excesses, the Rolling Stones' "Miss You," and Denny Terrio. Hercules and Love Affair is more interested in the disco of live house bands, string sections, catchy pop hooks, dreamy vocals, and lyrics that would be positively euphoric if they weren't laced with the awareness that love fades and every perfect night is eventually disrupted by the inevitable dawn. But all of those sensuous, earthy elements are what instill "You Belong" its 4 a.m. funk, "Blind" its percussive shimmy, and "This Is My Love" its new-wave hypnosis.

Hercules and Love Affair is also one of three recent releases that refreshingly embrace the album as an album, a cohesive whole rather than a patchwork of 99-cent downloads to be shuffled into a randomized playlist. These three artists--Hercules and Love Affair, Fuck Buttons, and Torche--have absolutely nothing in common musically. But each group has crafted a well-structured, thought-out, and dynamic experience that rewards listening to the release as a narrative whole, beginning to end. They're the sort of albums that make you miss having to get up and flip the LP over halfway through, a momentary pause in the action that brings a restless anticipation to the next side.

Fuck Buttons' Street Horrrsing (ATP) may be the most surprising. Brits Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power formed this group to smelt abrasive noise music; with Street Horrrsing Hung and Power creatively stitch structure, melody, and a symphonic grandeur into abstracted assaults, and what they've come up with is outright narcotized loveliness. If Godspeed You Black Emperor's Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antenna to Heaven is amodernism's Ninth Symphony, consider Street Horrrsing its "Pastoral."

Street has just that sense of impeccably ephemeral timing, opening with "Sweet Love for Planet Earth," which begins with a doting wash of keys and tones that feels like a sunrise glistening off a lily-lined pond. An electronic pulse soon disrupts this organic idyll, but its mechanized buzz and throb gets absorbed by the background prettiness. Soon, a keyboard swell and fading tone bursts conspire to trace a deep-space orbit that your ears chase as far as the music is willing to take you.

This rabbit hole goes light-years deep in its 50ish minutes, cruising by Holst-ian neon galaxies where the extraterrestrial natives communicate with intergalactic tribal drum calls ("Colours Move"), pausing to score the soundtrack for vampires kung fu battling werewolves ("Race You to My Bedroom/Spirit Rise"), before detouring into a kind of Doctor Who techno with "Bright Tomorrow," the most Luddite steady beat sculpting this side of five corner kids with plastic buckets and some sticks.

However clunky and piecemeal its elements, though, Street seamlessly works them into its rippling tapestry. You can almost detect a faint buzzing in the background of many tracks, as if a low-grade auditory hallucination that you get used to and never notice again. Stretched, monkey-howling voices are tortured and smeared into My Bloody Valentine-like guitar paisleys. Beats often sound physically carved out of the sides of industrial farm equipment. And it all gets succinctly, intelligently, and deliciously swirled into the inviting mix as if bits of candy bars, berries, and granola being hand-smooshed into homemade ice cream.

Torche's Meanderthal (Hydra Head) is the real eye-opener. On its 2005 debut and 2007 EP this Miami quartet displayed a winning knack for stoner/doom riffs and butt-rocking headbanging. The world always needs more of both of those, but what Torche pulls off with Meanderthal is damn near klieg-bright pop. As ass-shaking as Rated R Queens of the Stone Age and as triumphantly warm as that brief mid-'90s moment when sing-along post-hardcore discovered power pop, Meanderthal is an instantly accessible underground rock album.

It's also one of those winningly sequenced albums, where every song feels to be in its ideal place. From the adrenaline-pushing instrumental opener through the running-in-a-swimming-pool sludge of the closing title track, Meanderthal works. In between those two bookends, the van-touring Torche crafts arena-worthy guitar anthems.

Juan Montoya lays down those guitar hooks, and when he and bassist Jonathan Nuñez harmonize with singer/guitarist Steve Brooks over drummer Rick Smith's pounding pulse, the effect is damn near angelic--in a heavy-as-hell sort of way. Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou produced Meanderthal, and either his experienced touch or the band's congealing tightness lends the album a roiling confidence as it tears through the expected breakneck metal ("Pirana"), Sabbathian bellows ("Sandstorm"), and doom dreamscapes ("Amnesian").

It's the unexpected pop songcraft that yields the album's dizzying delights, though: the harmonized vocals shimmying over a swell of guitar thunder in "Grenades," the Jawboxing guitar throttle breaks and drums fills of "Across the Shields," the slowly building bass melody exploding into a blinding flash of guitars and vocals on "Sundown." "Fat Waves" alone should be played all over every classic/alt/college/whatever rock radio station right now, the sort of endless summer guitar chug and vocal hooks that sounds like what Guided by Voices could have done if Robert Pollard loved Motörhead as much as he loved the Beatles, the Kinks, the Who, et al.

That Meanderthal is nowhere near the Billboard 200 is mainstream music's loss, though, and for the moment you can still catch Torche ripping through its startling batch of new songs in the intimate comforts of a rock club. But act fast. If it keeps putting out albums this stem-to-stern consistent, even the human doorknobs at Clear Channel, major labels, and their ilk won't be able to ignore the band much longer. H

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