Various Artists – David Haffner’s “Disco with a Feeling” (Athens of the North, 2019)

Possibly the finest compilation of disco tunes you will hear all year, from the always brilliant Athens of the North.

We truly do live in a blessed age, where many music heads and crate diggers unearth the most beautiful of gems and forgotten treasures. We see more and more labels cropping up, along with established greats, that specialise in the art of the reissue, bringing forth cracking tunes that maybe were only pressed and distributed locally, or only sold 400 copies, to a whole new audience of music lovers. The people behind these labels are dedicated to this craft, as they forge an identity through their musical outputs via their various labels, so we the listeners get to know what to expect from them. From Kalita, Chuwanaga, Family Groove, Favourite Recordings, Mr Bongo, BBE, and many, many more, we just keep getting the good flavours from all around the world. Gems that didn’t shine as hard as they should have, back then, for better or worse are now in the hearts and minds of our current contemporary music landscape.

So then, Athens of the North. These guys really do know a thing or two about releasing fantastic soul, funk and disco records, to name but just a few genres they release. Based in Edinburgh, since 2014 the label has released heater after heater, with personal highlights including Milton Wright’s ‘Original Friends and Buddies’ LP, Bobby Byrd’s ‘Rock On’ single, Donnell Pittman’s ‘Love Explosion/Your Love is Dynamite’, the two Infinity cuts from 2018, and the various Brief Encounter releases under the label. These are just but a few of a excellent and deep discography, and the heads behind the label are showing no signs of stopping, with numerous releases this year alone, its enough to get through if you haven’t checked them out already! The label always looks to the groovy, the tender and the musically interesting, with each release always presenting a different flavour of the genre it resides within. This makes each release feel curated, carefully selected and part of one big family. The label is named after Edinburgh’s period of enlightenment, with Cramond Island as the jewel in the crown. And perhaps, this label is the crown jewel of all the disco reissue labels. Maybe? that’s up to debate.

So now we focus on one of their current batch of releases, ‘Disco with a feeling’, that has been curated by label pal David Haffner. He was primarily responsible for helping the label secure licensing for many of the rarer records issued on the label, so they felt the time was right for the man himself (a huge disco head) to provide something for the label. Much like the ‘Night Life’ compilation from this year, you can feel the love flowing from this release, the years of disco dedication has lead to this LP of just mind-blowingly good disco and modern soul cuts. Each track contributes to this overarching concept, music that you can feel and groove to, music that makes moments happen on the dance floor. But not only this, but each track captures a different part of the modern soul/underground disco spectrum, from the slowed down boogies to the high octane dance numbers, its got something for everyone. Very much a collection for the heads, it includes pure and classy cuts, where the essence is smooth and the feeling is flowing, we all can connect to these beautifully written and emotive tracks. So, lets take a dip!

First up is Ice with their tune ‘Reality’. Things start off with a little intro of simmering hi hats, soft keys and high falsetto singing. Before it all kicks off, with a lovely slowed tempo drum beat matched with a layering of a funky as hell guitar chord progression and licks. The vocals chime in, and they are something special, floating up high above the groove. The song just swings so beautifully, talking about a sweet lady and the reality of it all. Such a fantastic groove! Up next comes Cloudburst with ‘I’m loving you’. A modern soul feeler, it continues on with the riddims from the previous track, along with injecting some soaring harmonies into the mix. A solid as hell base made of key stabs, guitar and bass that follow the beat to a T, it provides such a nice musical contrast to the free flowing vocals that lie on top. The message is uplifting and sweet, the music to match, top notch. Next we have Popsicles with ‘These are the Good times’, where we fully immerse ourselves in the dance. The beat has switched up here, more clean and straight to the point, that works underneath a bass and key line that are hand in glove. The vocals then come into play, delivering a powerful performance in the chorus in particular. This is where elements drift away, to give full focus to the vocals, where the verses have more of a balance, but that ain’t no bad thing. Its that contrast that gives this song such forward momentum, with the shift a welcomed move to really hammer home those vocals. Those vocals! what a delivery. Next we have Bileo with their tune ‘You Can Win’. The intro is everything here, the horns thrown in to give it that little extra bit of dynamism. The drumming is on point, and again the vocals come in and the floor lights up. The infectiousness of this track, damn it could just go on forever. The contents of this track just make it flow and flow, oh yes.

Next comes Mahana with their tune ‘She really needs love’. Here the tone goes down a notch, with a more mellow feel. The instrumentals are hazy, the singing crystal clear, here we feel it all. The emotions we can just hold in the palm of our hands, as we hold our significant other deep into the night. The vocal delivery really makes us connect to the lyrics, that talk of longing and loving required in someones life. This comp just keeps throwing us curveballs, and its fantastic. Next comes Jerry Blacksheer with the track ‘Defected’, and oh yes. The smoothness of the intro, the drumming and toned down guitar is so on point, then the more laid back vocal delivery on top is the icing on the cake. The almost liquid textures of the instruments give it this sort of velvet feeling, with Blacksheer’s silky vocals just gliding on top of this shimmering shining star of a track. The breakdown after the chorus is mesmerising, and thats all down the layering of sounds that make up this exceptional track. ‘Lot of living to do’ by Mr Wigg and Company comes on next, and changes up the groove once again. The tune begins life with some vocal lines on top of a steady beat, with keys aplenty in the background, alongside a steady guitar riff that provides the basis of the groove. Its nice to have this element contrast with all that is going on around, the vocals in particular showing a great range, setting the emotional tone very well. The track evolves from here, as we move back into the verse section, before switching up once again as a fucking sick synth comes into play. This track has momentum coming out of everywhere! Benita is next with ‘Time for a change’. Horns a blarin’, guns blazin’, we feel it all on this high octane disco inferno. The rhythm is designed for moving feet, the bass and horns electrifying around the incessant beat, that just takes our hand as we spin around on the dance floor. The vocal delivery of Benita is classic disco, beautifully sung and executed expertly, adding that extra level of dynamism to this exceptionally funky groover.

Darrell Johnson comes next with this modern soul belter, ‘Days Gone Past’. This one just screams summer days, hazy memories lost to the good times had. The backing string section and soft key lines, added with lovely guitar riffs during the chorus, work so well with Johnson’s softly spoken delivery, that might be a true highlight of the track. The lyrics talk of a former love, and how times move on and change, and how we should try not to dwell. Its quite sombre, and provides the first moment of this on the entire record, where after brilliant grooves and all that, we take a minute to reflect, smile, cry and remember the good times. Next comes Bordeaux with ‘Paradise’s Love’, and yes we move back into the groovers. This one will light the dance floor on fire, with its deep dense delivery of the groove, captured with a heavy deep drum line, thick bass lines and a guitar chop from the gods. On top of all this, the vocal delivery is top notch, and that guitar solo, lets not even go there. Perfect. Next comes the Split Decision Band with their tune ‘Watchin’ Out’, which was previously released by AOTN way back in 2014. A real classy modern souler, this one just moves and drifts around effortlessly, with a solid groove giving life to everything on top.

Getting towards the business end of the record, we have Sequence with their short and sweet cut ‘Disco Thing’. Bringing an awful lot of colour and fun to the record, this combines all those quirky lyrics of Funkadelic with the uptempo disco stylings of groups like Crown Heights Affair, the horns playing a big role in the upbeat feelings reverberating from this one. The tune gracefully moves between the notions, swinging along to a lovely in between beat, where its not too high energy but not slowed down at all, not one bit. The Strivers Show Band come next with ‘Love Episode’, and this one goes down way deep. The aquatic sounding bassline chugs along in the depths, underneath a tantalising groove on top, the drums pushed back to give the bass maximum impact. The harmonised vocals on top are very Brit Funk, with a lovely series of lines just adding such range to the tune. The contrast between groove and vocals is wonderful, really giving the track massive amounts of feeling! Love Company come next with ‘Love Tempo’, which was another one of AOTN’s previous releases that made its way onto the record. Starting off with a filtered disco beat, cymbals and hi hats in abundance, this provides the basis for the rest of the tunes elements to come in and play. The guitar work is fantastic, chiming along to the beat, as the vocals soar once more above the groove, with a playful bass line thrown in for good measure. Its all about the beat here, as the instrumentals work enormously to play off of it to maximum effect. Ultimate good vibes shine through on this awesome cut. Next, we have Gratitude with their track ‘We are here to party’, and oh yes we feel this one. The up tempo groove floats along with little guitar riffs, leaving lots of room for the vocals to be fully appreciated, as the chorus comes to life massively, with all the spaces filled with synths, keys, you name it. The full works. Finally, to end off this once in a lifetime compilation, we have Jax Transit Authority with ‘Life Is a Miracle’. Could a better tune be picked to end this journey? all of these cuts, definitely, but this one certainly showcases all the strengths of the record. The space jazz synth lines, the consistent driving guitar riffing, the low end drumming beat, the pulsating bass line (full of life) and the powerful vocal delivery, this one has it all. A runaway disco train heading straight for the dancefloor.

Emotions always run high in disco and modern soul music. Its the core essence of it all, to have fun, smile and dance, but also feel. It is rare you find tunes that do both, provide us for a reason to feel joyous but potentially reflective at the same time. We appreciate them both by ourselves or in a dark sweaty basement, dancing til the sunlight. On this compilation, every tune provides us with these moments, where we transcend to places we associated with happiness, or loves lost, or moments that passed us by. It is elevated disco, soul and grooves, and that is something we can all connect with, in some way, or at some point in time. Here we see a series of these songs that create narratives and stories, and to hear them side by side is a joy of the highest order. The love driven into these tunes is felt from every angle, and its a blessing for us that we get to enjoy these tunes. The head behind it, David, clearly adores these tunes and the many others he has lovely released with AOTN over the years, and you feel this shining through this compilation. The message behind the music is matched by the enthusiasm and adoration from David for the bands and their outputs. We all feel disco’s message, but with this release, we have our eyes opened just a little bit more to its hidden powers. Athens of the North, David, hats off, this might be the best compilation of disco and modern soul we will hear all year.

Check out Athens of the North’s bandcamp to purchase and check out their amazing discography!

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