Evocative electropop from London’s finest…
The blossoming of grassroots electronic acts in recent years has brought a lot of bright talent to the fore. The contemporary music scene is a strange landscape these days, with many bands adapting to what is, in many ways, a post-record label world.
PledgeMusic is one of many options for artists to crowd fund their endeavours – an initiative that acts such as OMD, Ultravox and Gary Numan have embraced with success.
It’s an option that London-based duo Empathy Test also embarked on, initially with a view to funding their debut album. What both Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf (who form Empathy Test) couldn’t have predicted, however, is how successful their effort would prove to be.
Empathy Test managed to smash their initial PledgeMusic target and, during the process, took the decision to release not one, but two albums. “The new material was too different to the old to be on the same album,” commented Howlett in his recent Electricity Club interview. “We didn’t like the idea of a double album so we decided to create the album we should have put out in 2015 (Losing Touch) and the album we wanted to put out now (Safe From Harm), and release them both at once.”
Along the way, Adam Relf’s production skills had also developed substantially from Empathy Test’s early EP output. That provided an opportunity to remaster the older material.
As a result, Losing Touch essentially collates much of the band’s earlier songs, while Safe From Harm embraces the band’s newer output, which showcases a more confident hand at songwriting. In fact the two sleeves put side-by-side are designed to illustrate this, with the image on Losing Touch facing backwards, while Safe From Harm faces forward.
The band also generously opted to donate 5% of pre-goal and 10% of post-goal money from their PledgeMusic campaign to Mind, the charity that provides support to anyone experiencing a mental health problem and campaigns to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.
Losing Touch, to begin with, is more than just a simple collation of EP tracks. The material on this album has been reworked and honed into solid electropop that takes on Empathy Test’s particular talent for brooding melancholia.
The album opens with a strong number in the shape of ‘Kirrilee’, its slow, tumbling percussive rhythms accommodate a narrative that captures a moment in time and, perhaps, a reflection on the fleetness of youth (“We’re only a short while here, to be, ourselves”).
‘Where I Find Myself’, meanwhile, gets fleshed out more here than on its original incarnation. Its muted electronic percussion sets off sparks in the dark against lyrical themes of loneliness and solitude.
The eloquent tones of ’Last Night On Earth’ follow, although it’s the subtle tones of ‘Holding On’ (originally released on their 2014 EP Throwing Stones) that presents one of the album’s finest moments. It’s a slow-burning slice of effective synthpop with a captivating turn of phrase (“slowly disappearing out of view/holding on to you”).
The track ‘Throwing Stones’ itself presents a glacial pop gem. It’s another of the album’s standout tracks, particularly with the engaging synth melodies that revolve around the chorus of the track. The moody ‘Losing Touch’, which was essentially the first track to put Empathy Test on the map back in 2014, presents themes of lost loves and first loves (“It’s always been you”).
‘Demons’, on the other hand, throws a nod to dark electro with its empathic synth lines. There’s an icy charm threaded through the track with its stealthy synth melodies.
An impressive use of range on Howlett’s vocals is the highlight on ‘Siamese’, whose organic drum sounds give this number a much earthier sound. Elsewhere, ‘Sleep’ is an introspective piece that also suggests elements of The Sound Of Arrows. It’s sparse percussion gives the composition a sense of fragility, while also delivering another fine pop moment.
Losing Touch’s final track ‘Here Is the Place’ provides a fitting sense of closure to the album. It’s got a meaty drum sound that provides an intriguing backdrop for lyrics that revolve around finality and closure.
While the second album, Safe From Harm still dabbles in the twilight moods of the material on Losing Touch, at the same time it shows a band willing to give their music a much broader world to live in. There’s a more dynamic quality to the tracks here that shows Howlett and Relf grasping a much more confident approach to composing songs.
For instance, the soaring melodies of ‘Bare My Soul’, with its heartfelt lyrics, provides a perfect example of this new confidence. The narrative at the heart of the song, with its brief vignettes about people’s lives, is the sort of lyric that Lloyd Cole would kill for. At the same time, there’s a subtle building up of layers of electronic elements that culminates in a powerful delivery that’s both mythical and melodious.
Meanwhile, ‘Everything Will Work Out’ has a plaintive quality, its lush use of synths conveying a 3am atmosphere. The lyrics deal with love and loss (“Here I go, another romantic on overflow/I locked you out but you won’t go”). Or, as summed up by singer Isaac Howlett: “Lyrically, it’s about hooking up with your ex and then waking up in the morning and realising you’re not going to get back together, but it’s okay; it’s for the best.” It’s an evocative track that, as TEC’s review remarked previously, only someone lacking any empathy could fail to appreciate.
‘Trampoline’ has a hymnal quality to it, a simpler composition featuring lyrics that leave little ambiguity (“white powder, speaks louder”). Elsewhere, there’s a Nordic quality to the twilight melodies on ’Seeing Stars’, its wintery charms echoed in its lyrics (“Everything we do is falling snowflakes”).
‘By My Side’ is a smooth slice of warm synthpop with a polished production that, as mentioned in our previous review, offers up a cinematic panorama of electronic goodness. There’s a fragility at the heart of Empathy Test’s material here, which also employs a subtle and understated production that delivers songs that speak of sorrow and longing.
The album’s title track offers a velvet pop moment with some wistful synth melodies. While washes of echo give ‘All It Takes’ a series of moments that appear to be frozen in aspic. It’s lyrics touch on the budding of love (“This is the beginning of something magical/And all it gives, and all it takes away”) and it’s a effective slice of warm pop for the album’s final third.
There’s brooding synth tones and beats weaved into the composition that’s ‘Burroughs & Bukowski’ that suggests the likes of Electric Youth. While the tune has a literary bent, the song’s title is actually much more personal, as Howlett comments: “William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski are two of my favourite writers, but they were also the names of two goldfish I had when I was living in Brighton.”
If there’s one thing that emerges from Empathy Test’s material, its the chemistry between Howlett and Relf that allows them to compose songs that sound so polished and captivating. Here, there’s a sense of mood and melancholy that’s as heartfelt as it is unique. Adam Relf has also done a stunning job in not only crafting a smooth, engaging production for the albums, but the sleeve designs show that he’s got some artistic chops into the bargain.
On Losing Touch and Safe From Harm, Empathy Test have delivered not one, but two of the finest albums of the year. Standing as a testament to the heights that contemporary electropop can ascend to, Empathy Test suggests that the genre is in safe hands for the future.
Safe From Harm and Losing Touch are due for release on 17th November. Ordering details via https://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/empathy-test-album
Empathy Test are also performing at the Electric Dreams Weekender (alongside The Human League, A Flock of Seagulls, Howard Jones, Thomas Dolby, Avec Sans and others) on 1st-4th December Details via: https://www.facebook.com/events/513692095639972/
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.