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Romanthony's 'Romanworld' is the house music cult figure's masterpiece

Best known among dance music fans for collaborating with Daft Punk on ‘Discovery’s ‘One More Time’ and ‘Too Long’, Romanthony's ‘Romanworld’ found the US producer's cryptic genius in full force when it was released by UK indie label Azuli in 1996. In the latest edition of our Solid Gold series, Ben Cardew looks at how, eight years after his death, Romanthony remains the cult figure in house music, a one-off artist of immaculately unlikely proportions

On the face of it, ‘Romanworld’ looks like a pretty conventional electronic music album. Released in 1996 by UK indie Azuli, it rounds up 12 tracks from New Jersey producer Romanthony, many of which had previously been released, over two CDs or four sides of vinyl. Then again, on the face of it Romanthony himself might seem like a fairly conventional house music artist in the gospel/garage lineage (albeit one with a spectacularly golden voice). 

But long experience has shown that the late Anthony Wayne Moore was anything but normal. Romanthony was one of the most sublimely talented producers that house music has ever known. But he was also one of the most enigmatic, the kind of figure who zigged where others zagged, disdained fame and seemed perfectly happy to spend long periods outside of music when his shifting financial fortunes allowed.

For my recent book on Daft Punk’s ‘Discovery’ (an album on which Romanthony features), I spoke to Glasgow Underground founder Kevin McKay, who worked extensively with Moore. He told me that Romanthony ‘was such an obtuse person at times’, refusing to supply records to shops if he felt they hadn’t supported him previously and even going so far as to make his records sound deliberately weak. ‘Why? I don’t know’, McKay said, in a vaguely amused tone. ‘I did ask him. But he would just laugh and not be straight about it.’

This cryptic, almost frustrating, genius was in full force on ‘Romanworld’, an album that contains some of the most beautiful house music ever recorded, as well as a liberal dose of wayward experimentation. Romanthony is best known among dance music fans for collaborating with Daft Punk on ‘Discovery’s ‘One More Time’ and ‘Too Long.’ But the Daft Punk album that ‘Romanworld’ is most reminiscent of is ‘Random Access Memories’ in its desire to utterly indulge the creator’s impulses, however at odds they might be with the usual way of doing things.

Take the title track, which opens the CD version of the album. Rather than kick things off with arresting beats or a thrust of energy, Romanthony starts the album with a 10-minute spoken word piece in which the protagonist takes an elevator down into the bowels of the earth (the ‘Romanworld’ of the title), where he is lectured on Roman mores and human awareness. It’s all good fun, with a goofy and atmosphere setting, until you realize, with the introduction of a solo guitar lick three and a half minutes in, that this is actually the song and you’re just going to have to get used to it. (Particularly on the album’s CD release, where each disc played as a continuous song, with no track markings.) It is a welcome to Romanthony’s world, both literally and figuratively, that smacks of ambitious conceit. Would anyone, at any label, advise Romanthony to start his album like this? Probably not. Would the fans prefer this elongated welcome to a bumping house track? It seems unlikely. But this is what Romanthony wants, so this is what Romanthony gets. 

The album doesn’t get much more conventional from thereon in. Track two, ‘Make This Love Right’, may be a fabulously sharp vocal house number (when it eventually gets going), but it is followed by ‘Now You Want Blues’, a noodling guitar, church organ and vocal take on ‘Now You Want Me’, which itself follows (in original form) as track four. ‘Now You Want Blues’ isn’t blues house/blues techno or any other kind of electronic combination you might expect from a Romanthony record: it’s full-on blues, complete with crawling drum rhythm and Romanthony’s voice turned to full yearning despair. You can bet that Azuli, which billed itself as the UK’s longest running house music label until going into liquidation in 2009, released very few records like this in its illustrious career.

Or you might have done, were it not for the fact that Romanthony is at it again on the very next track, ‘Let Me Show You Love’, best known on original release (in its Crooklyn Mix) as a stomping house number, which attributes the tune to “Buzzin Cuzzins feat. Romanthony.” Here, the song kicks off with three minutes of rather ornate piano and guitar vamp (closely related to the Gigolo Jazz version of the song that appeared on the original 12-inch release) before slowly morphing into a more conventional, shuffling house number. ‘Come My Way’, which follows, goes in the opposite direction, woozing its way from a serrated house track into seven minutes of loved-up R&B romanticism, like a budget Teddy Riley with all of the melody and none of the expensive sheen. And this is just CD 1.

The elongated coda of ‘Come My Way’ offers an insight into the rather counterintuitive way in which Romanthony was loved by house fans. In truth, this section doesn’t add that much to the song; Romanthony was a gifted R&B singer, but he was an exceptional house artist, and there’s not all that much in the closing minutes of ‘Come My Way’ that he hadn’t already expressed far more eloquently in the song’s opening stretch. 

But you don’t go to Romanthony for brevity or even to necessarily get what you want. This might sound like a bizarre idea in the age of streaming and music on demand. But in the era of CD and vinyl, Romanthony demanded commitment from his listeners. More than that, he demanded faith. It wasn’t easy to be a Romanthony fan in the ’90s; his records were not that widely available, and they came with a bewildering variety of mixes to navigate. Romanthony could have made it considerably easier for the listener. But then he wouldn’t have been Romanthony. And that was the key.

Liking Romanthony was like a test of faith, then, but one that would inevitably and eventually pay off. And after an entertaining but tricky first hour, the reward on ‘Romanworld’ comes with the album’s immaculate second half (disc 1 on the vinyl version), which is home to some of the most devastatingly emotional, soul-drenched and brilliantly produced house music ever to grace our ears. 

‘Desire’, which opens disc two, is a perfectly hypnotic work of mixed emotion, which expresses the melancholy of (perhaps thwarted) love, using little more than a couple of impeccable vocal clips, which slink around each other like whips of flame, and a slowly spiraling percussive force. 

‘Falling From Grace’, which follows, is even better. One of the keys to Romanthony’s success is his complicated sentimental appeal. Emotions, in Romanthony songs, are rarely straightforward or easy, and the singer often seems to be searching for something that is just out of reach. You can hear all this in ‘Falling From Grace’, a song that flips from a dramatic spoken-word intro (“My son, don’t you remember me? It is your father.”) to synth stabs, descending chord sequences and Romanthony’s desperate call for help— “Father, help me please, as I fall from grace”— to a rollicking and rather upbeat piano outro, as the song’s emotion pivots from melancholy to merry at the flip of a musical switch. It’s no exaggeration to say that this song could have fitted comfortably onto one of Prince’s musical masterpieces from the 1980s. (It helps that Romanthony’s ruggedly high-pitched voice is very similar to Prince’s.)

‘Testify’, a gospel house song of utter euphoria, then completes the emotional turnaround, its stomping piano line and massed choir a reminder of how much Romanthony belongs in the Black music traditions of blues, R&B, soul and gospel, as well as house and garage. ‘Soul On Fire’, ‘Ministry Of Love’ and ‘In The Mix’, which round off the album, are, respectively, funked-up, nonchalantly romantic and soaked in redemption.

The impact of Romanthony and ‘Romanworld’ would, eventually, be huge. The album, for all its anti-commercial rambling, made a considerable impact on the European dance music scene, and it was voted one of the albums of the year by Muzik magazine in the UK. Romanthony followed it in 1999 with two albums: ‘Instinctual’ with DJ Predator, and ‘Live In The Mix’ for Distance Records, while the same year saw Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk re-release Romanthony’s classic ‘Hold On’ on his Roulé label.

In 2000, a new album for Glasgow Underground, ‘R.Hide in Plain Site’, threatened to take Romanthony into the musical mainstream, thanks to the infectious James Brown take off ‘Bring U Up’. But it was the release of Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’ later that year (and ‘Discovery’ the year after that) that really brought Romanthony to popular audiences, as the song sailed into the upper reaches of the global charts on Moore’s soaring vocal line.

Who knows where Romanthony could have reached, had he decided to capitalise on that success. But that, quite simply, wasn’t the Romanthony way, as McKay explained to me. “The sad thing was, once that record [‘One More Time’] blew up, I think his [Romanthony’s] publisher said, ‘I’ve got over a million dollars for you.’ Or, ‘I am likely to have over a million dollars for you here.’” McKay explained. “And so he just stopped making records. Because he didn’t need to.”

The success of ‘Discovery’ wasn’t exactly the end of Romanthony. After taking several years off to “be quiet” (as he explained to Electronic Beats in a rare interview in 2013) Romanthony eventually returned to making solo music, as well as providing vocals for the likes of Kraak & Smaak, Tom Trago and Teengirl Fantasy. But ‘R.Hide in Plain Site’ proved to be his final album and, by the time of his death in 2013, Romanthony had lost contact with many of his peers, news of his death only becoming public 11 days after he passed.

It was a tragically obscure end to one of house music’s greatest producers. But fame probably wouldn’t have suited Romanthony, an artist whose mixture of instinctive belief in his own ability and sneaking vulnerability could be compared to that of Kanye West. Eight years after his death, Romanthony remains the ultimate cult figure in house music, a one-off artist of immaculately unlikely proportions. And ‘Romanworld’ is his masterpiece, to be stumbled over and slowly digested by unsuspecting Daft Punk fans from now to eternity.

Want more? Read our recent Solid Gold on how Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds Of Love’ influenced the evolution of electronic music

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @bencardew