Electronic music has always been predominantly defined by the tension between man and machine, with robotic sounds and textures channeling emotions that are deeply, essentially human. It’s a tension that Hercules and Love Affair, the brainchild of American-Belgian DJ Andy Butler, understands better than most. With Omnion, Butler and singers Rouge Mary and Gustaph tap into this rich history, delivering one of the most emotive albums of the year using a blend of synthetic beats and human voices.
At its most basic level, Omnion is house music, and the album’s more club-friendly tracks sound like they could have been recorded in 1987 just as easily as 2017. Lead single “Controller” channels the synth-pop of bands like Soft Cell and Depeche Mode, with the Horrors’s Faris Badwin doing his best impression of Marc Almond. Similarly recognizable disco and dance touchstones abound, from the sequenced bassline and Nile Rodgers-esque rhythm guitar of “Are You Still Certain?” to the soulful club-diva vocals of “Running.”
There’s nothing here quite as transportive as Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind,” but there’s a sly inventiveness to the way Butler arranges his familiar sonic signifiers. “Still Certain” pairs its dance components with gorgeous Arabic vocals by Hamed Sinno, frontman of the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila; the effect, for Anglophone listeners, is unexpected and defamiliarizing. As for those club-diva vocals on “Running,” they, too, come from an unexpected source: Icelandic trio Sísý Ey, with suitably glacial accompaniment by the Kirke String Quartet. Such subtle but meaningful tweaks to dance-music convention create their own kind of tension, with the rigid mechanics of genre powered by an organic soul, the ultimate ghost in the shell.
Omnion is polished, precise, and familiar-sounding, but it’s also indelibly soulful. It recalls the discotheque’s formative role as sweaty, secular alternative church: both literally, on the gospel-house banger “Rejoice,” and figuratively, on Butler’s starkly vulnerable confession of his struggles with addiction, “Fools Wear Crowns.” Indeed, its first and last tracks are presented as literal prayers. On the former, guest vocalist Sharon Van Etten offers herself in supplication to the ineffable “Omnion,” pleading for “help from beyond”; on the latter, Gustaph leads a children’s choir in devotion for a better tomorrow, his voice soaring above a landscape of chattering synthesizers.
It’s in moments like these when Hercules and Love Affair finds the soul in technology, the real in the artificial, the sacred in the flesh. Omnion is cyborg gospel for an era in which humanity is a rapidly-vanishing resource. Finding it here, among the machines, is a strange and welcome kind of comfort.