I mentioned After Dark in my music retrospective; now it’s time for you to learn more.
Italo-disco hit a brief revival patch in the mid-2000s, with bands and music being inspired by those late-70s / early-80s synth boppers and dance-floor tracks, but with a unique style and sheen that distinguishes them from “traditional” disco. None were so inspired quite like Johnny Jewel (he’s so cool), who, after over a decade in the Portland music scene, founded label Italians Do It Better in 2006 to promote and distribute bands working in the style (mostly bands he himself was involved with). In 2007, the label released After Dark, a compilation of standout tracks from many of the labels’ artists– again, almost entirely bands Jewel was personally involved with. After Dark is, as many compilation albums are (particularly ones of a specific style of music or from a specific label), less a cohesive statement than a feeling, an atmosphere, but it’s the sort of atmosphere that could perfectly soundtrack a cyberpunk adventure, or perhaps just modern living in the 2010s and beyond. Indeed, despite the “disco” in the genre label, I often found myself playing this more as the backdrop to whatever I was doing than as a dance-party jam.
The two big standouts here are Glass Candy and the Chromatics, who combine for seven of the 14 tracks on the compilation. Of all the featured acts, Chromatics have since gone on to the most success, critically and commercially. Night Drive was released several months after After Dark, with “Killing Spree” making the transition; a cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” also appears on the album, styled to be of a piece with the rest. Night Drive is the right title for this album; it’s dark, contains long haunting stretches, and plays with our sense of time passing.
2012 follow-up Kill For Love was even more widely acclaimed; though fifth album Dear Tommy was scrapped (eventually the band would release Closer to Grey in 2019), the band still parlayed their success into a few appearances at the Bang-Bang Bar in season 3 of Twin Peaks, most notably performing “Shadow” at the end of the two-part season premiere.
“Killing Spree” is… “worst” feels wrong, so I’ll say “least best” of the three Chromatics tracks on this album. “Hands in the Dark” is full of spooky energy, more upbeat than the Chromatics’ later work; “In The City” is a masterpiece, presaging Night Drive with its dark soundscapes but adding the kind of energy and urgency that elevates this track above that album, appropriate enough for a song set in the city.
Glass Candy is less dark; as befits their name, they’re more upbeat and jammy, a delicious treat to hold (although you may not want to bite it). My favorite track of theirs here is opener “Running Down the Hills (Spring Demo),” which also appeared on Glass Candy’s subsequent LP B/E/A/T/B/O/X in its final form. Here, the track is slower and a half-step downward from the final version; I think that pacing lends itself much better to the atmosphere, whereas the finished album version feels rushed. The song itself is driven by a pretty groovy horn rhythm section and guitar riff (at least, I think that’s what those are; the gloss of the production kind of obscures the exact instrumentation, but nevertheless the song is great).
Nearly as good is “Miss Broadway,” which in the right production hands would have been a disco smash. Of a piece with the rest of the compilation, it’s given a darker sheen here, but that still can’t completely hide its bouncy exuberance, even when the big disco beats are backgrounded and the bass is made heavy. Glass Candy also contributes a cover of Kraftwek’s “Computer Love”; as far as covers existing, it’s not strictly necessary, but it sounds great and of a part with this album.
Other acts featured here include Farah, whose “Law of Life” is one of the darkest and most harrowing on the album– a head-on confrontation of the inescapability of pain and suffering and death. (It might be the sort of thing J.G. Thirlwell would have made if he had worked with Donna Summer instead of Nick Cave.) Mirage contributes the techno-alienated “Lady Operator” and nearly-ten-minute sojourn “Lake of Dreams,” as well as the remix to Indeep’s “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.” Professor Genius gets a couple of instrumental tracks that nicely break up the action with “La Grotta” and “Pegaso.”
This whole album is a pretty darn good look into the Italo-disco revival if that sort of thing interests you. I’d say more, but I don’t really think describing the songs can compare to the pleasure of just listening to the album. Synthesizers and disco beats, given a darker sheen and updated for our 21st century world? Yes, please. Check it out below.