We like to pour scorn on artists who are propelled onto the cover of the NME without so much as a single to show for. A few scrappy gigs with celebrities spotted; assiduously applied kohl; the requisite rags of the day—it seems like there’s a set of characteristics we look for in our starlets.
Stick to the shadows, and you’re usually ignored. But occasionally, leaving everything to the imagination can be a boon, as in the case of Azari & III, an elusive foursome from Toronto who make house music that sounds like it’s beamed in from a different decade. At once futuristic yet revivalist, they’ve got their hands in the air like they just don’t care, one finger permanently perched over the “klaxon” button, and a pair of outlandish divas at the microphone to rival anyone Andy Butler ropes in to Hercules And Love Affair. Although their media appearances are scarce; their name, troublesome, it is possible to mentally assemble a reasonably accurate image of the group, so visual are the connotations of their sound.
Though their debut album, which is supposed to see the light of day pretty soon, is intended to dispel notions of the outfit being a one-trick pony, what we have heard from them to date is pure, almost naïve, house music. In an interview with Lev Harris of the Quietus, Azari & III’s Christian (stage name: Dinamo Azari), explained the genre’s appeal.
“House is a freedom of expression. There’s no like ‘you have to sing about this or that’, it’s more open, it’s ghetto, it’s classy…”
This openness is fully on display in what, for me, is their standout track, “Reckless With Your Love” (see above). There’s a joyful abandon to the music—it’s there in the playful bounce of the bass line, and the elasticity of the synthesizer that doubles up the melody—and an unashamedly context-free nature to the lyrics, which are sung with a tuneful fury that mimics the move-busting of revellers. In the final two minutes of the song, the intensity is ramped up courtesy of overindulgently stacked vocals in perfect harmony, booming out the title phrase. It’s camp and ridiculous, the way every syllable is lovingly stretched out into a million shapes. The nearest comparison I could make is to the refracted multiplicity of vocals that shimmer through the closing minutes of Hercules And Love Affair’s “You Belong“. In that song, the thrill is in the competing qualities of the two singers’ voices: the lush smoothness of Nomi Ruiz, versus the granular soul of Antony Hegarty. In “Reckless With Your Love”, it is the homogeneity of vocalist Cedric’s harmonies which is so dazzling.
The other song by Azari & III which charmed me with its playfulness is “Hungry For The Power“—an older track, and one which showcases the group’s two vocalists. Atop relentless 808 cowbells and occasional swells of what I geekily recognise as a Sequential Circuits Prophet V, we get Fritz’s unnaturally low-pitched growl, interspersed with Cedric’s more typical house voice, drifting in and out of time, drenched in digital reverb. The ruthless efficacy of the song is at odds with the [spoiler alert!] primal, cannibalistic video, but “Hungry For The Power” is exactly what the doctor orders, when faced with a patient in need of a hedonistic groove.
Friendly Fires teamed up with Azari & III for the centrepiece of their Bugged Out! mix, Suck My Deck. The resulting collaboration, “Stay Here“, ends up channelling more of Azari’s chunky house goodness than the light-touch approach favoured by the St. Albans trio. There is a thumping and clattering beat, over which we get polyphonic stabs from a Prophet, and Cedric’s endlessly repeatable diva-thing ends up overshadowing Ed Macfarlane’s ghostly contribution. Meanwhile, Fritz steals the song’s bridge with a gravelly spoken-word segment that segues beautifully into the final segment.
But Friendly Fires end up preserving the mystery of Azari & III. Their schtick is predictable at this point in their career, but it is still beguiling: the soulful character of the voices, fronting essentially ego-less music. Throw on one of their singles, turn off the lights, and pretend you’re the centre of everyone’s attention.