Just Got Home
Scheduled as Empathy Test’s homecoming gig after their recent American adventures, the London-based electronic outfit also had a diverse bill of other acts on hand to round out the evening.
This included the dark dancepop of Nature Of Wires (no strangers to the live electronic circuit) alongside guitar outfit This Is Radio Silence and Transmission – a tribute group celebrating the music of Joy Division. So Empathy Test fans were in for an intriguing evening of entertainment at Islington’s O2 Academy on a chilly Saturday night.
Added to this were a few surprises and some scheduled guest appearances for Empathy Test’s set. This included the addition of new synth player Oliver Marson, although ET veteran Samuel Winter-Quick was scheduled to make an appearance for one special song. Republica’s Saffron Sprackling was also due to make a guest appearance this evening (of which, more later). Plus, the band’s sound was being handled by Elliott Berlin (Telemark, Aesthetic Perfection). The event also had a very special guest in the form of Isaac Howlett’s Mum, so no pressure there then!
First up was Nature of Wires, here with Sarah Bouchier (aka Lady B) on vocal duties to bring some pounding synth-pop to get the audience in the mood.
Despite a few technical problems at the initial start of the set (including mic issues – and the fact that the band had only several minutes to do a pre-gig soundcheck), they delivered some solid electronic bangers.
This included a beefy ‘Human Nature’ and the pounding pop rhythms of ‘Gold Girl’.
“We had a hit in Germany…” offers Lady B as an intro to the next song. It’s not too hard to see how this tune achieved popularity as ‘Try’ is one of NoW’s heavy hitters on both recorded and live renditions. It’s also a demonstration of Lady B’s powerful vocals and the passionate delivery of repetitive lines such as “You hate it, you hate it, you hate it”.
There’s an element of catharsis throughout NoW’s set evidenced by much of Lady B’s introductions to the songs. This includes the weighty ‘Out Of My System’ – “Another song about my ex-husband – because he was such a bastard.”
On that basis, Nature Of Wires delivers a strong collection of songs which land with an emotional impact.
Up next is This Is Radio Silence, a rock outfit that pull from a variety of influences, including Wire, Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Radiohead, Underworld and Nine Inch Nails.
Drawing from their latest EP Fallen Men, their set has a dark guitar-fuelled sound that’s got an effective tight arrangement. Meanwhile, there’s elements of spacey guitars dropped in at appropriate moments to give the whole affair a bigger, bolder canvas to work on.
Meanwhile, Transmission offer up something that initially throws you. Traditionally, tribute bands tend to weave in a combination of musical ability, cosplay and a passing resemblance to the members of the band they’re emulating. In a lot of ways, there’s a cabaret element to tribute acts that’s become an essential part of how they work.
Transmission eschew all those trappings to simply deliver some impressive renditions of Joy Division classics, including ‘She’s Lost Control’, ‘Isolation’, ‘Transmission’ and perennial favourite ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (which actually sounds better than the pantomime version that New Order knock out live these days).
A sturdy ‘Shadowplay’ also lurks in the set along with a few curveballs, such as the raw ‘No Love Lost’.
Considering there’s a high contingent of diehard synth-pop fans, Transmission get a rousing round of applause at their set’s end.
With those three acts having completed their turn on the stage, it was time for Empathy Test to grace us with their presence. Presenting their slightly augmented line-up (Oliver Marson taking over on keyboard duties, although Christina Lopez continues to bash the skins with attitude and ability. Plus, the foundation of ET itself in the form of Isaac Howlett on vocals).
Things kick off on good form with a strong ‘Holy Rivers’ and an equally magnificent (one could say tragic & beautiful) ‘Bare My Soul’. ‘Everything Will Work Out’, meanwhile, retains its moody slow-burning brilliance.
Then Isaac pauses to announce a special guest. Samuel Winter-Quick, who was on synth duties for Empathy Test in times past, takes over from Oliver for one song tonight. The warm and familiar tones of ‘Vampire Town’ present a subtle synth-pop charm – and there’s a knowing wink in the lyrics towards Sam (“And I know that we will always be friends”). That said, Isaac can’t resist a witty barb as Sam exits post-song: “You can’t come back Sam, it’s over…”
Back to the rest of the set and ‘Empty-Handed’ (hyphen or no hyphen? It’s tough to tell these days) has a tightly coiled energy to it. As we mentioned in our previous review of the single, it’s also got an evocative quality capable of touching the heart as well as the head. Powerful lines such as “The wave that came has broken/And the void has swallowed me” take on a fresh resonance live.
An immersive violet light fills the stage for a reflective ‘Seeing Stars’. But things step up a gear for ‘Holding On’ – a tune which seems designed specifically to get the ‘Empathy Test Massive’ singing along to the chorus.
Elsewhere, an angsty ‘Demons’ carries an emotional punch as strong as ever.
Isaac halts proceedings for a moment to make an announcement. At this point, Republica’s Saffron Sprackling was supposed to be joining Empathy Test on stage for a unique take on ‘Losing Touch’. Unfortunately, as Isaac explains, she had her car broken into prior to setting off for the gig, which means this particular treat will have to wait for another day.
Perhaps to make up for this omission, Isaac uses the opportunity to stride directly into the press pit while singing the song. When he sings “It’s always been you” he seems to be singling out every attendee personally.
During the course of the performance, Isaac also throws shout-outs to Chrisy for her percussion talents on the US tour, Adam Relf (in the audience, but not on stage this time around) without whom… and also Elliott Berlin for sound duties (apparently fresh in after flying to the UK from Poland).
‘Here Is The Place’ gets the audience singing along to this slice of big-hearted synth-pop. Meanwhile, the suitably titled ‘Just Got Home’ seems like a perfect closer for the performance.
But the enthusiastic crowd isn’t ready to call it a night just yet, so the inevitable encore gives us the rumbling bass tones of ‘Burroughs & Bukowski’ (with some robust percussion via Chrisy). Bringing the evening to a close, it’s the bright melodies of ‘Last Night On Earth’ – a song that encourages the audience to follow along with the lyrics (“I cannot help but sing along”).
Empathy Test continue to demonstrate why they’re one of the most loved electronic groups currently in action on both the UK and European scenes. Their US adventures also show that they’re more than capable of taking their sound to further shores.
As the year draws to a close, tonight’s concert marks one of the highlights of the autumn calendar. Despite the chilly weather encroaching on London, the warmth of these songs will serve to keep you warm on long winter nights.
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.