Review: Empire State Human – Audio Gothic

Perhaps the worst thing an electronic artist can be is dull. The temptation is there, given the inherent structure of electronic music. The metronomic programmed drums, the pulsing sequenced backdrops, the always-moving-forward patterned chugging that has been the signature of electronic songs since “Popcorn”. So the truly great electronic artists are those who transcend the worst trappings of the genre and give it a little something extra. We think of a band like Sweden’s Backlash who manage to jam more notes into a standard beat than any artist the genre knows; or Client who bring the dirty and the sleazy to the party to counter the sometimes staid rythyms and compel the listener differently; or IAMX who pack so much emotion into the vocal delivery it sounds the perfect counterpoint to the cold electronics, thus bringing out the very best from the machines. On the flip side there have been electronic artists since before the Golden Era who don’t do anything to the basic formula and thus, fail to distinguish themselves. They become so much white noise and only exceptional songwriting can save the day (Flock of Seagulls and Howard Jones were early examples of electronic artists who brought nothing new to the formula but who were able to write compelling songs to such a degree it didn’t matter).

Softsynth has tried to enjoy Ireland’s Empire State Human over the years but it has often been a struggle. With little to distinguish the music and songwriting that doesn’t lift the soundscape to any notable levels they fade into the walls, like a coat of paint applied several years ago. It’s just not top of mind and doesn’t really reach out and remind you it’s there.

While we salute their devotion to the analogue roots-based electro that recalls an earlier era, Audio Gothic just fails to ignite.

Vocalist Aidan Casserly purrs through each track with his somnambulant delivery sounding an awful lot like Everything but the Girl’s Tracey Thorn but his delivery tends to lead every song to sound exactly like the one that came before. The sounds are standard-variety bleeps and old-fashioned drum machines and it’s all one can do to stay awake while listening. 

When reviewing an album Softsynth lists the songs, listens four or five times to each and then assigns an “out-of-five” star system to each track while making notes about what may stand out in particular songs. After getting through Audio Gothic eight out of the ten songs had two stars and no notes of anything unique or stand-out. Not terrible, not “bad” but utterly, utterly unmemorable and ultimately dull. Earth coolingly dull. “Camera” groves along and throws the odd electronic curve ball that makes one’s ears perk up a little and “Ghosts in America” throws an otherwise sleepy song into a fun, surprising instrumental bridge (yet suffers from forgettable, silly moon-in-June-style lyrics) and the title track opens with a nifty middle eastern chant that then morphs into a neat jazzy, driving beat but even this track doesn’t really build into much though at a minimum you might be able to dance to it, if you were otherwise kind of tired, or needed to physically support a drunk dance partner. Even an appearance from Kraftwerk’s Wolfgang Flur on “Melancholic Afro” does nothing to distinguish this dull-as-dirt track.

All in all Softsynth celebrates bands like Empire State Human doing what they do but ultimately wishes they could develop some balls. A little punch like Ayria, or some song-craft like Goldfrapp, or even a better sense of keeping traditional, throwback, vintage synthpop interesting and relevant the way Northern Kind did on their fine 2009 album Re:Wired. Just going on doing what they’ve been doing all these years consigns them to the fringes of the genre where the bland and inoffensive reside. Audio Gothic does nothing to pull them inside. 

Watch Melancholic Afro:

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