Andy Butler has always embraced malleability in his music. As the leader and sole constant member of Hercules and Love Affair, he approaches his art from the perspective of “What do I feel like creating?” and then chases down those ideas to the best of his ability. After the success of the group’s 2008 self-titled debut album and lead single, “Blind,” he could have spent the rest of his career tinkering with its disco- and rave-inspired sound to delicious and lucrative ends. But he chose a different path, and the music is all the better for it.
Throughout Hercules and Love Affair’s subsequent albums, Butler and his collaborators—including ANOHNI, Kele Okereke, and John Grant—instead chose to pursue the sounds, moods, and impulses that inspired them. Instead of a slew of overt dancefloor bangers with potentially diminishing returns, the group crafted homages to depression, angst and anger all while exploring the outer limits of what house music and electro-pop could be. While those releases didn’t garner the same level of attention as that initial breakthrough, it didn’t stymie Butler’s desire to make the music that was important to him, on his terms.
With the release of In Amber on venerable UK dance label Skint, Hercules and Love Affair seem to have released their ultimate artistic vision statement. Across 12 stirring songs that fuse the emotional urgency of house with the darkened lens of post-punk, Butler and friends deliver heartbreaking gothic pop of the highest order. Alternately glistening and brooding but rarely insular, it combines Bauhaus, The Cure, Trentemøller, and Oneohtrix Point Never with fascinating and compelling success.
In Amber is a darkly spiritual and intensely personal record. Lyrically, the songs are replete with militarized Christian iconography. Butler uses the negatively charged themes to examine, deconstruct, investigate, and ultimately reject the hatefulness of evangelical American Christendom. Concepts such as death, dying, love, rebirth, acceptance, anger, and disillusionment receive ample attention.
From the outset, the music resounds with lush layers of sounds and vocals, complete with the return of ANOHNI on lead vocals for many songs. Stacks of synths, samples and patches create an inverted version of shoegaze, right down to the buzzing bass licks. Budgie, the renowned drummer for Siouxsie and the Banshees, enhances that sonic landscape with his spectral brand of beats and minimalist grooves. The band compiles thick dollops of gloomy pop textures from the last 40 years without turning the project into a swampy morass of overwrought influences. By employing a level of delicate restraint, the music avoids overwhelming the senses while still providing a kinetic sensation of exploration.
“One” immediately delivers dark house energy with a seamy bass rhythm underneath chittering hi-hats and synth pulses. And when ANOHNI keens multiple iterations of the phrase “Held down, head down,” you can’t help but get the shivers. On “Christian Prayer,” seething guitar phrases coil themselves around echoing, aggressive tom rolls to create this malicious, hateful energy. ANOHNI ramps up the angst by providing an aching, passionate entreaty that openly asks Christians not to offer up their desultory “thoughts and prayers” when she dies.
Industrial ambiance marks “Contempt for You,” as steely scrapes and shivers fuse to booming drum patterns and simmering keyboard melodies. Again, ANOHNI delivers a gut-wrenching vocal performance as she intones “I’ve got nothing but contempt for you” in the face of the people who have attacked her simply for being different from the masses. Cavernous snares and toms undergird “Poisonous Storytelling” while distended power chords and synth spikes serve up stomach-churning snarls. This song finds ANOHNI railing against harmful narratives—including evangelical dystopias, secular eschatology, and ecological ignorance—while encouraging others to pay more attention to what they hear and see so they don’t get deceived.
On one hand, the album’s metaphors are almost too obvious in that it tells the story of someone actively breaking out of their old life in which they were stuck in amber. By choosing a different and better path for their lives, they experience loss, pain, hurt, and rejection from their family—ideas the album explores with profound emotional resonance. On the other hand, by drenching the lyrics in Christian terminology, the main character of these songs could purposefully be encasing their old ways of thinking in amber. They don’t believe in that theology or philosophy any longer, but they keep around the memories as a reminder of their past even as they walk steadfast into the future.
At times, In Amber feels intentionally fractured into disparate thoughts, each track its own therapy session. The pieces are related, but they aren’t assembled in a linear fashion. Thankfully, the subtleties abounding in the instrumentation and arrangements serve as the connective threads between the shattered elements. When experienced as a whole, the keenly balanced track order offers a fluid, overarching listening experience, conceptual without being overly weighted down by concept.