Today is a very special day for London- based, electro-pop duo Empathy Test – made up of childhood friends Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf who formed the band in 2013. Sharing a mutual love for all things sci-fi they drew inspiration from ‘80s movie soundtracks, ‘90s guitar bands and underground dance music. Their name, borrowed from Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi masterpiece, Blade Runner, gives a clue to the DNA of a band that has self-released a string of meticulously layered, sumptuous Synthpop tracks that have won them both critical acclaim and a legion of dedicated fans worldwide. They are also turning in the kind of Spotify streams you would expect from the latest industry-backed buzz band.
So, after four years hard slog, the fiercely independent twosome are releasing not one, but two debut albums today – Losing Touch (Remastered) and Safe From Harm, both of which contain reworked versions of previously released material as well as brand new tracks. The band, like a growing number of new artists, have turned down their fair share of record deals in favour of PledgeMusic – one of the largest sites for crowdfunding music in this “post-record” age.
At the last check, the hugely successful campaign is now 637% funded and counting, showing the huge weight of support they have behind them. The band are kindly donating 5% of pre-goal and 10% of post-goal money to Mind, the charity that provides support to anyone experiencing a mental health problem and campaigns to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.
The first album Losing Touch (Remastered) is mainly a collection of their earlier stunning EP and single releases but with subtle, refined changes. Kirrilee is the opening track and sets the tone for the rest of the album – a haunting, lush production in perfect partnership with Howlett’s emotive, ethereal vocal. The song has a real, retro nod to the 80s, in particular the line “Light another cigarette now honey, mix another Snakebite and Black” and, listen close – you may be reminded of a hook of Phil Collins’ “Another Day In Paradise” – a bit random I know, but just an observation. It’s a strong opener and lyrically lovely. Hope For Me opens with the beat of a sombre drum and ripples of shimmering synth which belie the sadness of the song’s subject matter. It’s a heart breaking declaration of a boy’s inability to be what his girl wants him to be – “Every time you hope for me, This is what you get from me” repeats Howlett with regret, and as the song progresses, the sombre drum transforms into a rolling drum and is coupled with a celestial synth and vocal that make the track soar.
Throwing Stones is a beauty. A twinkle of synth opens the song and Howlett sounds his brooding best as he sings of lost love – that is, until the chorus – where there is a surge of a gorgeous synth melody that puts you in mind of OMD’s “Souvenir”. The melancholy synth- sounds match beautifully with the vulnerability in Howlett’s vocal: “Once again, I’m throwing stones, at your window”. Losing Touch follows – another stand out track and the song that brought the band to attention back in 2014. A regular, dark electro beat pulses throughout the song and Howlett packs some emotional punch with the heart -rending lyrics: “When you’re feeling alone, and you’re colder than stone, call me you know – It’s always been you.”
THIS is what’s loved about Empathy Test and has gained them an adoring fan base –they are masterful at creating music that is full of reflective, heartfelt lyrics with regards to “love and loss” themes backed by rich soundscapes that prove there is nothing emotionless about electronic music. There are two brand new songs Siamese and Sleep which are captivating and evocative additions and sit well with the original material. The first album is brought to a close with Here Is The Place – a haunting song with waves of synth that create a barren, coastal atmosphere matched by bleak lyrics: “Here is the place, when I die, I want you to bury me” alongside “these friendly roots will hold my bones, And I will never be alone”. It’s a fitting choice for a final track.
Bare My Soul opens Safe From Harm, the second debut with a celestial soundscape punctured with solitary synth beats and an electro, spiralling groove that reveals a band refining its sound and growing in confidence. The chorus has a 90s club dance element which ascends into an anthem – it’s richly textured with layers of electronica and the track is driven along with power and polish. Everything Will Work Out is one of the most interesting songs on the album and the band’s latest single. It’s a song about love (when it’s complicated or messy) –and musically it constantly weaves from the uplifting chorus; “I’ve got this funny feeling that everything will work out” to the melancholic, dark tones of painful reality: “Here I go, another romantic on overflow, I locked you out but you won’t go” until the song builds in intensity with chimes of sorrowful synth in harmony with Howlett’s aching vocal “We’re too tied, too well-tied together”. It’s lush and heartfelt and really moving. (I’m not crying – I’ve just got something in my eye)
Firelight is filled with droplets of glistening synth, textures of percussion and rich, layered trickles of sound while By My Side is pure, emotive electro goodness with an electric heartbeat that pulses with a singular beat throughout. Safe From Harm continues Empathy Test’s ability to convey a melancholic beauty in their music, lyrics and sound. The penultimate song is Burroughs & Bukowski – this is one of the more expansive tracks on the album. The arrangements are reminiscent of producer Giorgio Moroder and despite the lashings of 80s influence, it still manages to sound contemporary. The synths glow and shine until the final incandescent note.
Empathy Test should be rightly proud of themselves. To have delivered one great album would have been an achievement without a record label – but two is outstanding. In an over-saturated market of electronic music, they are up there as one of the best – their childhood friendship has also proved to be a dynamic working relationship. Losing Touch (Remastered) and Safe From Harm are both wonderful, inspiring pieces of work and prove Empathy Test’s talent in making evocative, electro-pop music with depth and feeling.
Both albums can be ordered via pledgemusic.com
Empathy Test will be holding a launch party with support from http://www.ninasounduk.com at Zigfrid von Underbelly on 25th November
Empathy Test are also performing at the Electric Dreams Weekender ( along with The Human League, Howard Jones and others) on 1st – 4th December https://www.facebook.com/events/513692095639972/