MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY/EMPATHY TEST Live In London

Evocative Electropop Evening

It’s odd to think that a year has passed since Empathy Test did their debut album(s) launch event in London. Back then, there was an energy in that room that seemed almost physical. In many ways, it was a testament to the modern era of electronic music, one that had moved on from the often cloying reliance on paying homage to the bands of 40 years prior.

Electronic music has, in essence, always been about moving forward. Empathy Test have always been a band to herald this idea, not by presenting music that’s difficult or so challenging that its appeal can only be appreciated by a super-niche group, but by crafting songs that speak to the heart.

This gig, which took place in the intimate surroundings of The Old Blue Last in the heart of Shoreditch, also served as an album launch event for Man Without Country. As regular readers will be aware, Ryan James (aka Man Without Country) did a superb job on providing a remix of one of Empathy Test’s latest tunes (see TEC review previously).

Although Empathy Test founder Adam Relf was in attendance, the London-based electropop outfit were performing as a 3-piece tonight. Augmented by regular cohorts Samuel Winter-Quick and Chrissy Lopez, Empathy Test still managed to offer a captivating live show which demonstrated that none of their tunes have lost their power.

The likes of ‘Bare My Soul’ delivered a percussive power pop moment with Isaac Howlett putting heart and soul into his vocal performance. ‘Vampire Town’, on the other hand, has a bass-heavy approach which has some sturdy support from Winter-Quick on backing vocals (a role he was reluctant to deliver on Empathy Test’s album launch!). It also benefits from some impressive drum fills from Lopez.

There’s a few witty moments during Empathy Test’s set, such as Howlett calling out to Adam Relf in the audience (“There’s no bass where you’re standing!”). At one point, Howlett also announces that the set-list will only be focussing on the “cool ones” from the Empathy Test catalogue.

A polished ‘Safe From Harm’ follows which benefits from some shimmering cymbal work from Lopez (who also offers up some backing vocals of her own on this number). An extended version of ‘Seeing Stars’ follows on, which presents a bass-heavy fugue with a superb accompaniment of layered synth sounds.

At this point, Howlett ruminates on the fact that is has indeed been a year since Empathy Test launched their debut albums, albeit at a different venue. Time then for the band to unveil some of their newer tunes, kicking off with ‘Holy Rivers’. There’s a more souped-up power to the track in a live setting, which also has the challenge of some tricky vocal elements. Yet Howlett flawlessly delivers the high note segments with style.

There’s a shimmering quality to the rendition of ‘Incubation Song’ that follows, which has a starker vocal delivery here compared to the recorded version.

‘Losing Touch’ brings a particularly boisterous set of cheers from the assembled crowd. Always a popular live tune, it benefits from some Joy Division-style percussion care of Lopez and Howlett’s weighty delivery (“Here we go!”).

Next up, Man Without Country (aka Ryan James) offered a combination of crunchy electronic elements contrasted with an often gauzy vocal. On stage, James keeps the conversation brief (“Thanks for coming out – on a school night”). Tonight’s event was in service of the launch of his album Infinity Mirror with the greater part of the setlist concentrated on songs from the new release.

Much of Man Without Country’s lyrical content takes on a melancholy aspect. There’s doubt and self reflection threaded through compositions such as ‘Never Trust Anyone’ (“If I can’t trust you/I’ll never trust anyone”) and ‘Layfayette’ (“Where do I find the strength/To overcome my inspiration killer?”). In that respect, there’s a resonance with the brooding qualities of Empathy Test. But Man Without Country leans towards a sharper electronic direction on his material.

The breathy vocal delivery that Welsh musician James offers on these songs has a Nordic sensibility. At times it calls to mind the likes of The Sound Of Arrows or Sailor & I.

One thing that was clear from his performance was his talent for utilising plenty of instruments on stage. This includes hitting the skins on electronic percussion as well as taking up guitar duties. The foundation for all these is engaging electronic beats, which weave in burbling synths and dubby effects to craft an immersive soundscape.

‘Alcohol & Adrenaline’ has a choppy insistence to it. Elsewhere, ‘Remember The Bad Things’ adopts dreampop elements against some melodic flourishes that suggest New Order at times. ‘Beta Blocker’, meanwhile, has a more urgent quality to it, particularly in its percussion.

Post-gig, Isaac Howlett muses on the future of Empathy Test, commenting that there’s a few more releases planned before the inevitable third album arrives. Meanwhile, they’re looking at broadening their horizons with a visit to Mexico.

We depart into the chilly London streets, warmed inside by an evening of captivating electronic music.


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Paul Browne

Paul spent his formative years indulging in fanzine culture before branching out to graphic and web design in later years via his Arc23 outlet. Responsible for the creation of the Official OMD Website, Paul also spent over 10 years administrating the site as well as providing sleeve notes for many of the OMD reissues.

Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.
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