It is remarkable to think that I first heard Empathy Test for myself just five years ago. That first time was back at S.O.S. #2 at Electrowerkz, the second instance of a small-scale indoor festival that followed the Alt-Fest debacle – part of a groundswell of support that was inspired by Alt-Fest’s great promises and swift collapse, that initially threatened to take an awful lot of other festivals in particular with it.
/But Listen/165/Empathy Test – Monsters
Back then, Empathy Test was a young duo, Isaac Howlett on vocals, and Adam Relf on synths, and while they had some excellent songs, it was clear that at the time, they were a duo that was still feeling their way into live performance, and perhaps didn’t quite have the confidence…yet. But even by that point, they’d played Wave-Gotik-Treffen (the CEO of the festival having already seen one of their first shows in London, and pretty much booked them for WGT on the spot), and their profile was rising, fast.
Watching them over the years since has been watching an object lesson in how independent bands survive in the modern, internet-focussed world. Creating and producing their own music at home may not be new, but by having had the fortune of releasing exceptional early songs that really did create a word-of-mouth buzz (I would not have heard of them as early, had I not had friends breathlessly telling me about them), meant that they had a good-sized audience from the off, and, it turns out, one that was willing to back them when it came to buying their music.
So they never signed to a label (and I know that they certainly talked to a few), instead continuing to self-release, and having wildly successful fan-funded campaigns – to the extent that the new album Monsters netted well beyond six times the original target, and the twin debut albums blew through their original targets too – has allowed them to remain independent.
But what of Empathy Test in 2020? Those twin debut albums Losing Touch and Safe from Harm kinda brought everyone up to speed, collating pretty much everything from their litany of early singles, adding in a few new songs, and remarkably making two exceptional albums in the process. Their live shows have become much slicker as a general rule, with a more confident stage presence and ever-improving sound, with Isaac now joined onstage by Chrisy Lopez (drums) and Oliver Marson (keys), while Adam Relf now takes a backseat, preferring just to write and produce rather than perform onstage. I mean, it is unusual, but by no means unprecedented, and if it works for them…
There is something, of course, of a hoodoo around the second album release for any band. If you’ve made a splash with your first, you heighten expectations and potentially leave yourself up on a pedestal to be “knocked down”, as some of the music press used to gleefully do in decades past. I have no such intentions, I should add – any band I write about I like to succeed, but I do retain some critical distance, to allow me to be honest about the music that I hear.
The expectation was likely heightened by a number of quite brilliant singles over the past year that started the new cycle, and it is notable that this time the group pared back the number of songs released in advance – so even if you were familiar with the band’s output, six of the songs would be new to you on release day, which meant a rather different feel to this album to the ones that came before.
Pick of those earlier-released songs – and frankly the pick of Monsters full-stop – is the exquisite Incubation Song. A song where there is a distinct feel of moments of doubt, of wanting to retreat to the comfort of home and love, away from any glare of the outside world. This desperate yearning is accompanied by a musical backing that has an unusual drum pattern and just a small smattering of synths, with wide-open spaces in the mix only exacerbate the darkness in the sound.
The other pair of previously released singles are also still striking. Empty-Handed has a stuttering rhythm that suits the live drumming used on this album (even if it rather repeats the same drum pattern of Holy Rivers, and the multi-tracked vocals on the dramatic chorus remain a show-stopper. Holy Rivers was perhaps the one of these three that I never quite appreciated as much from the off, the lyrical contortions around realising our tiny place in the world feeling perhaps a little trite (something Isaac Howlett is usually very good at avoiding).
Which brings me onto the new songs. The title track Monsters does everything that Empathy Test songs have done so well but feels…ponderous. Particularly as it drags out the coda for too long, stretching to nearly five minutes when it could easily have been edited down to four, but before it overstays the welcome, it does have a nice melody.
The twinkling, skittering Doubts is much better, with some smart changes of direction across the track, and a glorious, breathless bridge that caps off a song that is frankly a fucking triumph. Making Worlds is another solid, at points mellowed out song, with a lyrical theme around someone clinging to what might have been, rather than dealing with the present.
Stop is dominated by the drums being pushed really high in the mix, which for me distracts from any other element of the song initially, until the quite brilliant chorus, where Howlett pushes his vocals to the upper limit of his range to great effect. The faster-paced drums on Fear of Disappearing, mind, suit the song well, a rare Empathy Test track with a faster, fizzing pace and it is all the more welcome for it.
The final pair of songs are quite the contrast. Skin mopes a bit about the past (as many singers in this kind of synthpop sound have done since time eternal!) amid another strikingly good melody, but Love Moves is another outstanding closing track from a group who’ve made a good habit of it so far. A smoother, almost soulful track, it genuinely feels like a departure from what Empathy Test have tried before and shows another facet to a group who have established a sound – that by being rather slower-paced than many of their peers, made them stand out from the start – and have earned themselves the freedom to experiment and evolve further.
That they don’t push the envelope that bit more on this album is perhaps the one really frustrating thing about it. A couple of the songs on this album – even after quite a few listens – are broadly interchangeable, and for a group that seems to have an inexhaustible supply of breathtaking songs, this seems surprising. Especially when some of the other songs on this album are so brilliant.
But, lest we forget, this band are now just six or seven years, and now three albums, into their career. This is their first album where the newly expanded line-up has had a hand in the songwriting and recording, and maybe, this is the transition to where they want to be in the future. And if so, this is a perfectly good, if occasionally flawed, stepping-stone.