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Love & Devotion Maya Kalev , March 20th, 2013 10:23

In an age where retro is a dirty word and paint has barely had time to dry before it's old news, we need records like Love and Devotion. A gentle rebuke to our insatiable thirst for novelty, it proves beyond doubt that musical nods to the past need not be automatically synonymous with creative calcification. Instead, Heterotic draw on a rich musical heritage, exploring how the ghosts of the past affect the present. Retro styling contextualises Love and Devotion and, crucially, the album's story is delivered with an emotional heft that many current producers aspiring to hypermodernity would do well to note.

Heterotic may be a new band but its members are hardly new to the game. This is the joint venture of Mike Paradinas – if you aren't familiar with his label Planet Mu and solo productions as μ-Ziq, stop reading this now and go and educate yourself – and his wife Lara Rix-Martin. Half the songs on the album also feature Gravenhurst's Nick Talbot, an artist who up until now has seemed locked in perpetual competition with himself for the title of world's bleakest musician. Here, however, his input is hazy and haunting rather than depressing, his vocal appearances the album's highlights. Nonetheless, a profound attention to sequencing ensures that Love and Devotion is that rare beast, an album where both vocal and instrumental tracks are woven together into a strong narrative arc.

Over 'Wartime's rousing but restrained strings, foggy stabs and cavernous kicks, a heartsick Talbot sings of temporal and emotional distance: "The space between us grows / And all I recall is the back of your neck… and summer's last days". The spaciousness of the music itself sounds designed to mirror those lyrics, evoking the tension of words left unspoken, so that when glassy bell chimes and field recordings waft in towards the end, they reverberate with longing. Here Talbot's voice is richly bittersweet, but in 'Devotion' it's etiolated, as if the singer's been thwarted one time too many. The line "may the circle be unbroken" coils in on itself like an ouroboros, resigned to the futility of hope, as New Order-esque synth patterns and softly echoing vocals locate the song historically in an ideal past.

'Blue Lights' is also narrated with the benefit of hindsight, tinting the past with a rosiness that's unstable and unnerving, thanks to the fallibility of memory. Its treacly deep house piano chords and cascading melodies are almost immediately countered by Gravenhurst's husky vocal, which awakens heart-wrenching (though not necessarily real) memories. 'Blue Lights' is probably Love & Devotion's highlight, finding both Heterotic's unquestionable pop nous and Gravenhurst's devastating vocals at their most affecting. Peering somnolently through a dawn-lit daze, 'Slumber''s lyrics evoke that intangible heart-sunk, post-rave, pre-dawn limbo, where it's possible to find poetry in the most mundane of things.

Love and Devotion also veers into other territories at far greater remove from immediate personal experience. Space-age futurism is a common motif dotted throughout the Mu discography to varying degrees of success, from the dazzling supernova footwork of Young Smoke to Starkey's stale intergalactic-dubstep schtick. In Heterotic's case, the unashamedly cinematic instrumental 'Robo Corp' is the fulcrum of Love and Devotion's story, a Vangelistic dystopia in full effect. It's all synthesised grandeur and MIDI choirs, the drama ratcheted up with each additional layer, so that when it all tails off without resolution, the effect is jarring to say the least.

Though it plays like a loving, if fraught, homage to the music of the 80s and 90s, Love and Devotion always errs on the side of familiarity rather than retro-reverence. Those aesthetic and lyrical allusions to the past are also vehicles for a moral, subtly delivered: that in order for relationships to succeed, life has to be lived in the present. Coupled with very contemporary and spacious production, it throws up more vexing questions about the interplay between past and present than it can possibly answer. It's a powerful conceit that in the hands of lesser musicians might have come off as clumsy or retrograde. Here, though, it's exquisitely realised.