JULY ALBUM OF THE MONTH
With ‘Self Aware’ a new sun rises on a new rock Empire. A fresh counterpoint to an ageing rock scene – a genre that is seen by many to cling to past glory days, where the legends are getting older and where some of the radio-friendly new bands look and sound a bit too much like their heroes. This changes with Empyre: Performances with expressive charm, composition framed by strong musical intelligence, a look that makes a nonsense of dated genre stereotypes and – already – a strong sense of a brand identity that works across media channels.
For this album review I am avoiding a detailed track by track narrative. At Great Music Stories, I have been fortunate to follow the rise of this very British Empyre for some years now – and seven tracks have, in earlier guises, all commanded sustained playlist runs on my Friday rock show. In a sense I’ve got to know this album jigsaw piece by jigsaw piece. It’s hard to re-assess some songs that have already become trusty friends, so instead I have decided to reflect on how that album as a whole makes me feel. And a welcome reminder here that, at a time when streaming is pushing a commoditised singles culture, the value and impact of an album as a body of work – a rounded reflection of a band at a moment in time – should never be lost. Picking July’s ‘Album of the Month’ has been more than challenging, but I’ve gone with Empyre precisely because their new release works better as an album.
For longstanding fans of the band, Empyre open the album with a trilogy of new songs that present the widescreen intensity prevalent throughout this fine debut. ‘My Bad’ immediately sparks curiosity and holds appeal for audiences well beyond classic rock. Most bands wouldn’t pick a track like ‘Stone’ to come in as track two on a debut album but this is a compliment to the band’s belief and individuality. No easy-on-the-ear, foot-tapping-four-bar-rocker here: It is a reflective – almost progressive – opening, the aggressive vocal choruses and the sumptuous guitar work presents a band thoroughly serious and absorbed in the music they want to craft and doing it the way they want to do it. The opening trilogy concludes with Empyre’s latest single ‘New Republic’ – possibly their best radio song to date. Strikingly contemporary, cleverly structured and, once again, the guitar work elevates the song to a new level at the very point when you thought the song had peaked.
For fans discovering Empyre for the first time ‘Drive’ and ‘Something Remains’ – standouts from previous EPs – have become firm favourites on my Friday rock show, whilst ‘Only Way Out’ opens a new window into a more vulnerable, emotional side to the band. The song also underlines the band’s outstanding potential to be one of today’s rising rock bands that could quite easily break into the mainstream. In many respects they fit more naturally on BBC radio than they do in specialist hard rock media. Or, more to the point, they could quite comfortably live in both.
If you enjoy ‘Only Way Out’ do track down their cover of ‘My Immortal’ – a sensational version that the band makes its own, and shortlisted by our listeners for single of the year. For their live sets, the band are quite open about dropping in a few covers; the Chris Cornell Bond classic ‘You Know My Name’ is another song that the band reinterprets both faithfully but with a creative, intelligent twist. It’s the thought behind the music that, time after time, gives Empyre’s execution a compelling edge over many of the bands in their peer group.
I’ve mentioned to the band a number of times that, in my opinion, they would be a perfect tour support for a band like Marillion. I’ve seen Empyre on the bill many times playing to hard rock audiences. Whilst they always more than hold their own, they don’t really do “jumpy jumpy” rock. For instance, I can’t really imagine an Empyre Mosh Pit. It’s music to absorb, to appreciate, and applaud at the end rather than scream along to. Like Marillion classics such as ‘Gaza,’ ‘Easter’ or ‘Neverland,’ Empyre’s album closer ‘Homegrown’ is an opus of similar pedigree that you have to have patience with: It’s not music to iron your pants to (if anyone actually does that), it’s music that demands a bit of concentration and you have to give it time. But what you get back is something bigger than a tune. The whole cultural rebranding of songs as ‘tunes’ implies a shallow commoditisation of music that is simply inadequate for the rugged power, cinematic breath and creative intensity that Empyre have a knack of serving up time and time again.
Last summer, I was asked by the sponsor of Cowes Week to shortlist a bill of guitar bands to play on a day-time stage at the World’s biggest sailing regatta. It was an experiment to present rock to the masses in an informal way. My brief, given my longstanding focus on new generation bands, was to come up with the right list. Empyre was actually the first band I called and on reflection this says something more broadly about the band and also this new album. At a time when the classic rock scene has woken up to a new generation of bands in Britain today – many of whom have been around for some time – Empyre is a band that carries their heritage influences but presents them in a modern way. They don’t sound like most of the young rock bands around them. They don’t look like a classic rock band. And they’re one of a very small number of today’s rock bands that your partner could like, your kids will like – and your gran might too. This is what Queen and Bowie had: They had a strong identity and they were great because they wrote good songs that transcended boundaries. At a time when everyone is trying to put bands into neat genre-label shoe boxes, I have a feeling that the young rock bands that will cut through will be those that don’t live in a box – and whose identity is firmly forward-looking. This is new the paradigm for modern rock and Empyre, knowingly or not, are becoming a benchmark for what modern British rock could look, feel and sound like tomorrow. The sun is rising on a new era of rock. It’s the start of a new Empyre.
Empyre’s debut album ‘Self Aware’ is released on 5 July
Pre-order a physical copy of the album from the band and check online links at https://www.empyre.co.uk/preorder
Listen again to archive interviews with the band:
Feature interview, November 2017