Empathy Test get the monsters…
Not willing to skimp on either quality or quantity, Empathy Test served up not one, but two debut albums back in 2017. Although the London-based combo had already made their mark via a series of well-received singles, both Losing Touch and Safe From Harm (see Electricity Club review previously) served up a lengthier stay in their world of brooding anxiety pop.
Much of Empathy Test’s magic comes from the odd chemistry between founder-members Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf. “I tend towards writing catchy, accessible pop” commented Howlett in a recent interview, “while Adam brings a darker, more obtuse edge. He seems to deliberately make rhythms undanceable and melodies unhummable. It stops us being too saccharine and too overtly pop.”
Meanwhile, the development of the latest album saw the creative hub of the band augmented by the inclusion of Empathy Test’s live component. As a result, Oliver Marson takes on synth duties and Christina Lopez delivers percussion on the album.
The genesis of Monsters, as with previous Empathy Test ventures, was also produced via crowdfunding (in this case Indiegogo). That venture was a staggering success with the band raising 500% of their initial goal, demonstrating that the band are building a sizeable fanbase.
Monsters then, takes on the perhaps unenviable role of the difficult third album. The previous albums sent a benchmark of sorts and it can often be the case that the third outing is either repeating itself or wanders off into a new (often ill-advised) musical direction. The good news is that the signature Empathy Test sound is present and correct, but here it’s bigger and bolder. In particular, it’s Lopez’s percussion that lends these songs an earthy, more organic sound. That element of mood and shadow is still there but there’s a more upfront and dynamic quality.
This is evident straight out of the starting gate with the album’s title track. ‘Monsters’ is an astonishing track which is a perfect showcase for the evolution of Empathy Test’s sound. Inspired by an odd turn of phrase to refer to hangover anxiety (“I’ve got the monsters…”), this is a more muscular approach than most people might expect of Empathy Test.
Howlett’s vocals seem to have more of an edge to them here, with the delivery of lines such as “When the emptiness arrives/And there’s nowhere left to hide” given a particular emotional weight. The eye-catching video from Calum Macdiarmid, meanwhile, utilises a lot of unsettling imagery that sticks in your mind.
‘Empty-Handed’ has an urgent energy at its heart (see Electricity Club review previously) . It’s a slow-burning number that employs a lot of evocative imagery – and has a lot more kick here in its album incarnation.
The subtle repeating melodic riffs of ‘Doubts’ are bolstered by Howlett’s extraordinary vocal talents: Big percussive fills are dropped in while his voice soars above. The composition also weaves in some slick synth textures to complete the package.
Elsewhere, ‘Making Worlds’ offers up one of the album’s secret weapons. It’s an angsty number with a bittersweet sentiment about loss and absence; a masterful tune that can’t fault to resonate in even the stoniest of hearts. There’s a nice use of vocal melodies at work here (“I cannot be without you/Making worlds within my head”) that’s likely to make this track a fan favourite.
‘Holy Rivers’ has a captivating, sepulchral quality to it. As a song, it harkens back to the twilight palette that the Losing Touch album delivered so well. Lyrically, the song has an introspective quality that trades on ideas of uncertainty (“Hearts are heavy/Overcome with doubt”). Again, there’s a more dynamic quality at work on this revised version compared to its earlier single incarnation (see also the lush ‘Incubation Song’).
There’s a timely aspect to ‘Fear of Disappearing’ with its themes about isolation and loneliness (“It’s a lonely time to be alive”). In the current climate of uncertainty and lockdown fever (the Coronavirus crisis is also doing damage to the struggling music scene), this tune is going to strike a chord in more than a few listeners. The tight percussion also lends this number a raw quality, giving the whole thing a sense of urgency.
For the rest of the album, ‘Stop’ drops in some synthwave licks, while the excellent ‘Skin’ delivers shuffling beats and an introspective lyrical reverie.
Monsters closes out with the equally impressive ‘Love Moves’, offering some warm synth elements and more of Howlett’s otherworldly vocal chops.
Those who have already accompanied the band along on their musical journey won’t be disappointed by the songs on this album. At the same time, Monsters demonstrates a welcome evolution in Empathy Test’s sound – and some stunning tunes as a result.
Monsters is out 22nd May.