The truth can be so tragic and beautiful…
It’s been quite the year for London-based electronic outfit Empathy Test. Their successful PledgeMusic campaign saw the band reach over 600% of their target – an effort that also resulted in the production of not just one, but two debut albums. It’s a result that’s certainly buoyed up the spirits of Empathy Test’s core duo of Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf, who set the date for a launch party for both albums.
Losing Touch and Safe From Harm (see TEC review previously) demonstrated that Empathy Test have a talent for polished electropop, but the announcement that they were going to perform every song from both albums seemed like an ambitious undertaking.
Their venue of choice was Zigfrid von Underbelly, an independent venue nestled in London’s Hoxton Square. Setting the mood for the evening, the tunes wafting over the PA pre-gig drew from the Drive soundtrack. With the likes of Electric Youth and Kavinsky lending a mirror of sorts to Empathy Test’s own brooding compositions, it’s an apt choice.
Empathy Test have built up quite a fan following from the Mesh community, a following founded on the band’s previous live outings with the Bristol band. That loyalty was in evidence tonight with a strong turnout of hardcore fans – including Mesh’s own Rich.
Opening act Nina presented some effectively energetic synthwave-flavoured tunes. Her performance was also boosted by fellow musician Laura’s suitably dynamic work on electronic percussion and backing vocals.
Nina’s set provided a pop-fueled atmosphere for the venue, which swiftly reached full capacity. Time for Empathy Test to finally take to the stage and power through their extensive live set. For their live outings, the duo of Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf are also joined by Samuel Winter-Quick on synths and Christina Lopez on drums.
The set kicks off with a surprisingly powerful ‘Kirrilee’, which sets the standard for the evening. On record the songs have an evocative twilight feel at times, but for their live outings, many of them take on a more muscular delivery.
Empathy Test have also carefully crafted their stage presence to give a sense of dynamism and energy. Howlett crouches low in a boxer’s stance to dance during songs at times, suggesting a coiled energy. When the tempo of the songs steps up, he’s fully ready to take up a more striking position at the edge of the stage (and, as we see later, into the audience itself).
The next sequence of songs keeps things moving at a steady pace. ‘Vampire Town’ breathes a bass-heavy moody atmosphere while ‘By My Side’, with its introspective nature, has Howlett casually wandering back and forth to the smoke machine in a bid to give the gig some physical sense of mood. At one point, he realises that he’s overdone the smoke machine as the band are completely obscured in a stage blanketed in fog! And yet, it seems to be the perfect visual metaphor for Empathy Test’s immersive soundscapes. As Howlett emerges from the clouds, it could almost be a purposeful sense of theatre.
“It took us 2 years to release this one” Howlett comments before delivering a heartfelt ‘Siamese’. Its percussive tones given a heavier presence thanks to Chrisy Lopez’s talents on the drums.
By the time that ‘Throwing Stones’ gets performed, the audience are moving as one and with some encouragement from Howlett, the wistful tones of the Losing Touch track turns into a singalong.
It’s also clear that there’s a fine chemistry on stage between the band. Although Adam Relf is happy to focus purely on playing music in his corner, Howlett jokes with synth player Samuel Winter-Quick about not actually singing any backing vocals. It’s a task that drummer Lopez is happy to take on however, something which adds to the fact that there does seem to be a notable contingent of Chrisy fans in the audience.
Meanwhile, ‘Bare My Soul’, whose distinctive icy opening gives way to curiously intriguing vignettes about people’s lives, leads to a powerful delivery on stage. It’s no wonder that TEC’s review pinpointed this particular track as an example of the band’s talent to be “both mythical and melodious”.
The rolling bass of ‘Burroughs & Bukowski’ provides the foundations for a moment of dreampop perfection. There’s a personal element to this song that seems to find its home in the hearts of the audience (which is quite a feat for a song inspired by pair of goldfish!).
Introducing the next song, Howlett jokes with Winter-Quick about how the set is about to step up to a more “dance-orientated” direction. Introducing ‘Sleep’ he adds an amusing dedication that has connections to TEC (but which for discretion, we’ll gloss over here) and, after, asks the crowd if any of them are feeling sleepy. The huge roar that erupts suggests the complete opposite.
Speeding towards the end, there’s a powerful sequence of tunes consisting of ‘Everything Will Work Out’, a euphoric ‘Holding Out’ and an emotional ‘Demons’.
Saving the best until last, an enthusiastic encore brings a truly superb ‘Losing Touch’. Howlett now encouraging the crowd to join in. Wanting to erase the line between audience and band, he gets down into the crowd itself and inspires a hasty circle of fans to join in the singing.
Empathy Test’s musical journey, from early EPs through to their fledgling live performances and finally to the successful launch of their albums reaches a satisfying conclusion of sorts tonight. It’s a moment that seems to have captured lightning with the perfect audience and a flawless stage performance.
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.