The first listen of a band’s career-defining album is a rare, phenomenal, unsurpassable experience.
Such is the case with Empires’ latest LP Orphan, which finds the band taking a step away from grittier rock tracks and throwing focus on a more synth-heavy sound. The seamless genre transition is astounding and, with the help of producer John Congleton, makes for the group’s most powerful and ambitious record to date.
After releasing Howl in 2008, Empires gained recognition in 2010 when it make its way to the final four of Rolling Stone‘s “Choose The Cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.” Since then, the band has continued its climb to the top by playing Lollapalooza in 2012, and making a TV debut on Letterman.
It’s been a long time coming for this bunch of Chicagoans, but it seems as though they’ve finally hit the sweet spot.
From the unit’s fuller, redefined sound to singer Sean Van Vleet’s beautiful exploitation of his vocal range, it’s clear from the get-go almost nothing has been borrowed from Empires’ past two albums. While the album opener “Silverfire” is the closest to the band’s past work, the changes in tone and skill are obvious. Van Vleet growls his newfound Berninger-esque drawl over an energetic ensemble with calm confidence, building up to belt out his phenomenal high notes as the song transforms into an uplifting anthem. Though the track is one of the most conservative songs in regards to experimentation, it’s a fun intro to a stellar album.
Immediately following the soft fadeout of the first song, the title track starts with a retrograded synth and electronic drum kit, showing the first signs of the electronic foray to come. “Orphan” is the polar opposite of old Empires—in a good way. The song flows at a mellow tempo with Van Vleet singing falsetto, contrary to the group’s old style of faster-paced rock songs, but evolves into a contagious dance song in the chorus. The gloomy synths brighten up to embrace shimmering guitar for a singalong with a catchy pop rhythm.
Orphan shows enormous musical and lyrical growth for Empires.
The shrill synth in “Glow,” the explosive transitional guitar solos in the National-heavy “Shadowfaux,” the serene, minimalistic beauty of “Lifers”—all make for an entertaining trip from start to finish.
Additionally, Van Vleet (the band’s sole lyricist), has stepped up his game both vocally and lyrically. As if the group’s instrumentals weren’t infectious enough, Van Vleet takes each song and makes it a hit with his rich, soaring vocals.
“Stay Lonely,” for example, is his vocal hoorah, topping off his range with an emotional roar toward the end. The song has a dark vibe until Van Vleet starts yelling in a higher register, creating a rigid dichotomy between verse and chorus. His fervent voice contrasts wonderfully with the bright bells in the chorus, making it one of the best songs on the album.
Lyrically Van Vleet’s best performance comes in “Please Don’t Tell My Lover,” which also features incredible vocals and a catchy guitar riff. The song comes across as quirky due to the danceable instrumentals, but has a darker story as he tells of his secret disdain for his lover, who he hopes doesn’t find out his true feelings.
Empires has undergone a vibrant metamorphosis since its debut LP in 2012, which has played in its favor. The resulting cultivation of styles shows immense maturation for Empires, marking the pinnacle of the band’s career thus far.
Empires – Orphan tracklist:
- “How Good Does It Feel”
- “Please Don’t Tell My Lover”
- “Stay Lonely”
- “Journey Kid”