Alumnia: New Moon rising over nu-disco
It's been six years since Norwegian producer Lindstrøm's game-changing I Feel Space ushered a disco revival into Europe's underground dance scenes. Its waves of shimmering synthesisers and dramatic, echoing beats made for a dancefloor dream. At the time, its restraint enabled it to sneak into the minimal house sets that were en vogue during the middle of the last decade; but ultimately it was to spearhead a movement of its own - one that, unusually in the fickle world of dance music, is still going strong.
The music made by producers such as Lindstrøm, Todd Terje, Studio and Prins Thomas, and released on labels such as Norway's Full Pupp, has been termed variously cosmic disco, space disco, beardo disco and Balearic disco: a range of appellations that each indicates a different, and necessary, aspect of it - and also the range of styles contained under its umbrella.
In particular, it was never strictly a straightforward disco revival: though Italo disco was a heavy influence on its proponents, in both spirit and sound everything from prog to yacht rock, from 1980s pop to easy listening could be detected from artist to artist. What united them seemed to be slightly more abstract: first, the idea of irreverently reinterpreting the past for modern ears rather than merely reviving it. From Terje's re-edits of old pop and disco tracks to the Michael Jackson pastiches on Lindstrøm and Christabelle's 2009 album Real Life Is No Cool, it was as though the genre's figureheads' forte was to recalibrate their record collections for the ears of a clubbing generation raised on house and techno, crate-digging as though they were excavating an archaeological dig and unearthing forgotten or unknown treasures.
Secondly, there was the specific mood that the disco revival aimed to evoke. House is a feeling, goes the slogan - and it was even more true of the space disco crew. Whether with prog-influenced guitars or sine waves of synths, the genre was caught perfectly between the beach and the stars: leisure music that takes the listener on fantasy holidays and outer space trips. Perhaps this is a reason for nu-disco's continued strength long beyond the usual shelf life of a dance subgenre: as well as the original Norwegian imprints, newer labels such as Munich's Permanent Vacation continue to capture its recreational vines while pushing it into ever-irresistible territory.
British label Claremont 56 - based in, of all the un-Balearic places, St Albans - is one of the labels that has carved out an unmistakable niche. Founded by Paul Murphy (aka Mudd) in 2007 in order to release his own material, it swiftly expanded to release material by artists as integral to the nu-disco movement as Idjut Boys, Blackbelt Andersen and Brennan Green.
Its latest full-length offering is one of its best yet: New Moon, courtesy of the hitherto unknown Italian duo Almunia, aka Leo Ceccanti and Gianluca Salvadori.
Ceccanti is the multi-instrumentalist responsible for the record's perfectly judged guitar work and softly decorative vocals; Salvadori takes the reins when it comes to electronic programming and turntables. They grew up together, says Ceccanti, but with mostly disparate tastes - enabling them to, as he puts it, "take inspiration from both disco music and fusion/rock music", as well as common ground such as Pink Floyd, Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock.
Consequently, the key to New Moon's success is how finely balanced each element is: Ceccanti's noodling, abstract riffs and Salvadori's steady, warm rhythms decorate each other rather than dominating in their own right. Dos Estrellas is a case in point: electric and acoustic guitar riffs languidly play off each other while insectile squiggles of synths dart above. Handclaps and shooting star synths enliven Electro Blues, while yawning synths add a rare sense of menace to Moving Up Slowly. So laid-back is Almunia's aesthetic that rarely does a single element reach out to grab the listener: it is as an inseparable whole that it works most effectively. According to Ceccanti, this "completely natural" balance is the result of either starting with the groove and synth of a track before he decides on the type of electric guitar riff to overlay it last - or by recording acoustic instruments first and building the rest of the track around them.
As a duo, Almunia also have a real knack for melody and pacing. The title track and lead single develops in a deceptively casual way, almost lullabic in its drift until you realise how well the ebbs and flows of Ceccanti's pealing guitar match the metronomic pulse of the beats and bass. So calming is its caress that the entry, five minutes in, of Ceccanti's vocal - fragments of half-heard longing - is revelatory. Meanwhile, opener L&G Psychedelic progresses from careful, still evocation of a desert at night - echoing chords and heavy amounts of reverb opening up spaces within the music - to the full-blown curlicues and spirals of melody implied by the title.
It isn't just the duo's impeccable sound design that makes New Moon a compelling listen, though. Midway through the album, the gorgeous Kissing Time makes clear the sense of romance that underpins their music. The acoustic guitars here and on Until She Comes are so sweetly pastoral that they could be easily transposed to folk love songs without seeming out of place. Nu-disco's emotional focal point is often overlooked - such talk can sit awkwardly with its slightly nerdy record collector side - but is key to its appeal. It is no coincidence that so much nu-disco has used imagery of dreams, holidays and assorted fantasia: it is an aesthetic in which the imagination is of fundamental importance. Indeed, one could term it aspiration of imagination.
Much of the yacht rock from which some nu-disco takes its cues is seen as aspirational, synonymous with a high-class lifestyle. And just as nu-disco producers tweak those sounds to suit a contemporary context, so they adjust that aspirational drive to have a slightly different focus. The "Balearic" moniker is an indication of this: a reference to both hedonistic clubbing hub Ibiza, of course, but even more to a leisurely Mediterranean lifestyle, all beach parties and sunshine and relaxation - far removed from the hubbub of nightlife.
Often the aim seems to be to evoke a physical and mental utopia, and if this can seem a touch hippy-dippy at times - "Take off all your clothes!" exhorts guest vocalist Benjamin James Smith on Travel - that is outweighed by the ease with which Almunia carry it off. Kissing Time and closer Until She Comes work as straightforward love songs, refracting their emotions back on the tracks that preceded them; the former serenades you, and the pay-off is a gloriously ascending synth climax. Unsurprisingly, when asked about this aspect of the record, Ceccanti simply responds, "Yes, we are romantics. Love is the greatest thing of life."
Almunia are a perfect fit for the Claremont 56 label: New Moon is an album that perfectly encapsulates the label's commitment to what owner Paul Murphy describes simply as "beautiful music", evident in its exquisite mix of the organic and the electronic.
It is a distinct and singular aesthetic; when pressed, Murphy - who grew up on hip-hop and soul before discovering house, and then disco "as I got older and realised where all the samples are taken from" - expands his definition. "I like it to have live elements," he says. "Things with real strings and guitar solos, not just electronic elements. There's so much lazy music being made at the moment just in front of the computer - I like music that's been written and created in the studio."
There is a sense of real care in how Murphy runs Claremont 56 that also gives an indication of why Almunia fit so naturally on it.
There's the presentation of the music, for one thing: Murphy is instinctively anti-digital (though he has embraced it through necessity), and admits, "I spend a stupid amount on the vinyl and the packaging because it's really important to me. I think that's why it's done well - people know there's care in there, that love's gone into it."
In specific relation to Almunia, Murphy also reveals the care he took in helping the duo develop their sound. Both Murphy and Ceccanti make reference to the first batch of demos sent to the label as being not quite up to par - but it was the potential that Murphy sensed in Almunia's music that made him continue to correspond with them instead of dismissing them out of hand.
"I was hoping they were going to find their own sound," he says of the process. "And they did. They just seemed to get better and better. The vocal tracks were the last they gave me, and I think they're getting more and more confident with that. It was really nice to see."
Alex MacPherson is a regular contributor to The Review.