ALBUM REVIEW: Empathy Test – Monsters

8/10

Empathy Test

Since Empathy Test’s conception in January 2013, the London-based synth-pop act have been fiercely independent and brave in both self-producing and self – releasing not one, but two brilliant debut albums back in November 2017 – Losing Touch and Safe From Harm along with a string of memorable singles.

Like a growing number of new artists, the band have turned down their fair share of record deals in favour of taking a more entrepreneurial approach by using crowdfunding sites to raise finance for their albums. Monsters, their much anticipated third album, due for release on 22nd May, has been crowdfunded via an IndieGoGo campaign. Despite a global pandemic, the band have managed to raise £26,686 in just two months. That’s a whopping 667.15% funded and more than they raised in eight months for their debut album releases. This just goes to show that the band still have a huge weight of support behind them from a growing legion of loyal fans, eager to hear their latest music.

Over the last few years, Empathy Test has toured extensively in Europe and beyond, performing with everyone from The Human League to The Japanese House. In 2019 they completed five tours throughout the UK and Germany, festivals in Sweden and Belgium and played 35 dates in the USA. This year, before lockdown curtailed more tour dates, they played two festivals in Germany and headlined a show in Stockholm.

Monsters builds on the modern synth-pop sound of their previous work but with the addition of live, acoustic drums and synthesisers to the mix to capture the energy of the band’s live shows. Founder members Isaac Howlett ( vocals/songwriting) and Adam Relf ( composition/production) have incorporated the considerable talents of performing members Christina Lopez (drums) and Oliver Marson (synths) for the first time to create a rawer, more organic sound that will no doubt enthuse their loyal following while winning some new fans too.

The lead single also called “Monsters” is a strong opener with Lopez’s thunderous, pounding drums taking the lead, underpinned with liberal doses of the band’s dark electronic atmospherics. Written collectively by all four band members, Monsters is described by the band themselves as, “an ode to anxiety” and is accompanied by their first-ever video, which has been funded by fans and directed by award-winning director Calum Macdiarmid and is already in the running for the Berlin Music Video Awards. The lyrics deal head-on with the modern-day curse of anxiety and loneliness which is often exacerbated by social media: “When the emptiness arrives/And you’ve nowhere left to hide/ When it’s stacking up inside from the corners of your mind”. Frontman Isaac Howlett’s androgynous vocal sits lower in the mix than on previous offerings, helping to give ‘Monsters’ a weight and energy like never before. It’s a really impressive start.

There are three previously released singles reworked here for the album – the dazzling “Empty Handed”, the tense “Holy Rivers” with frenetic garage-style beats and arpeggio synths and the heart-rending “Incubation Song”. All tracks fit in perfectly with the album as they deal with the central themes of loneliness and anxiety. One could say that the extra drum power afforded is not always necessary – they were absolutely delightful tracks as they stood and Howlett’s vocal, always mesmerising is the main draw to Empathy Test’ s sound and on occasion, the drums can seem to take over and distract.

The new songs are ace – “Doubt “ haunts with shimmering synths and Howlett’s pleading vocal whilst “Making Worlds” is electronically evocative with repeated key loops and synth whips akin to “Sleep” ( from “debut album Losing Touch) – absolutely captivating and heartfelt. “Stop” is a sinister wonder dripping with rich, retro electronica and layers of lavish synth textures – full of melancholy and mood. “Fear Of Disappearing” has a sense of urgency and drama and the drums are a lovely addition to this. The sparkling, twinkling bridge gives an evocative nod to Duran Duran’s “Rio” and the song has a lot of energy and pace.

Closing track “Love Moves “is a stunner. Howlett’s vocal is broody, almost choked and the circular synths build the melancholic atmospheres – the track is layered with buzzing synths, punchy percussion and emotion –a real delight. It’s has a real retro poignancy, a nod to the 80s and everything just comes together so well. Monsters is going to translate to a live audience extremely well and just as importantly, looks to cement Empathy Test as one of the most inventive, emotionally affecting and addictive musical experiences around.

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