Everyone loved a bit of Empire Of The Sun back in 2008. They popped up in MGMT’s slipstream, looking ridiculous and making blissed-out pop that crossed borders. Sleepy Jackson chap Luke Steele and Pnau’s Nick Littlemore made themselves up like Adam Ant on… who knows? Something stronger than acid though. And in ‘Walking On A Dream’ they couldn’t have chosen a more apt title for their debut album, a pie-eyed set of synth-glam that picked up gold discs all over the world.
Since then things have been even more haphazard. First Littlemore went AWOL – leaving Steele to tour Empire Of The Sun alone – then he reappeared and got back into bed with Pnau again, promptly making a number one record out of some old Elton John odds and sods. Clearly Steele and Littlemore have some strange alchemy going on and now they’re back in harness with a new EOTS album ‘Ice On The Dune’ coming out on 24 June. Let’s see what it’s like.
An intro really, with tattoos of drums and Phantom Of The Opera strings pulling together to form a nightmare fairground ride. It’s not long though and – as we’ll see – it’s about as dark as ‘Ice On The Dune’ gets.
“Dreamtime, it’s a special place/Let’s keep each other awake… Our hearts/Now they beat the same” – The Emperor and The Prophet (as Steele and Littlemore style themselves, obviously) are shipping in the new-age hippie philosophy nice and early. ‘DNA’ is utterly synthetic phased disco, but warm too, and seems to make a bridge out of elements of Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’.
We know this one, the perfectly formed single. “Say hello to my people!” It’s so joyous and cuddly, you probably will.
This bops along happily for a couple of minutes – “I live in this world that I created/I did it for you,” coos Steele over synths so airy they barely exist – before realisation dawns that it’s Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Everywhere’ remade by acid-casualty computers. That’s not a bad thing per se, but it’s a hard idea to shake over the next few songs.
Now he even sounds like Christine McVie. “Let’s go running away/We can last forever,” is the theme as EOTS mine a seam of fluffy Eurodance that flirts with their customary cheese but – right now – is too friendly to resist.
A change of emphasis here as the pace switches to pale funk, with the odd guitar jangle and techno bleep. There’s something almost jazzy about the complex melody, but the lyrical content holds firm: “The eternal flame… You are my horizon“. We’re all about big vistas, love being something bigger than the land, transcending the corporeal. Man. It’s pleasantly weird anyway.
Um, this still sounds a bit like ‘Everywhere’. However, it’s also one of the strongest tracks here, its chorus of “I’ve made up my mind/I will be around for a while” so simple and sweetly delivered, but powerful too. Steele’s like a guardian angel, “harder than diamond” too, which is good to hear.
Tropical rave synths, woodwind straight out of Duran Duran’s ‘Save A Prayer’ and slightly thicker beats. Promising stuff, but a bit misty and empty in the end.
Some pretend rock riffs now on the synths; think Daft Punk or Justice. In fact, the chorus – “We celebrate, we celebrate our love” – is rather Chic too, but eventually it’s all woozy dreaminess and a nagging sense of stasis.
While we’re talking Daft Punk here’s a vocoder and a jaunty skip straight off one of the more smarmy 10cc records. “Let’s push through four dimensions ’til our brains turn to jelly,” suggests Steele, and it doesn’t seem a bad plan. This one’s sugary and luxurious. You’d wallow in it, but not for too long.
Imagine if Kate Bush joined Erasure. It’d be a bit like this, with its chiming synths, clip-clopping beats, mystical lines about “ancient hearts” and going “round past the rocks to a waterfall“, and Steele’s skyscraping vocal. Actually, Kate Bush joining Erasure would be amazing.
A dramatic change of tempo for the close with cushioned beats and bass and minor-key piano throwing ‘Ice On The Dune”s overall sound into sharp relief. It’s been a steady pop-disco ride, sometimes memorable but usually just hazy, and the switch-up for the final track is a jolt. Oddly, ‘Keep A Watch’ is very Lennon, plush like ‘Imagine’ or ‘Woman’ until a gospel choir swoops in for the second half. No half-measures for this lot.