Kasabian won’t mind us saying that they weren’t really all that good to start with. They arrived, glossy and fully-formed, funded by a multinational to live on a farm for 18 months before being ‘launched’ with an expensive guerrilla marketing campaign that made even the ever-placid Alex Kapranos so annoyed that he launched his own tirade at rock’s new super-gobs.
Then, there was the album itself, which was merely alright. To be fair, this wasn’t all Kasabian’s fault: they were peddling the ‘dance rock crossover’, a genre so nefariously difficult that even Depeche Mode – the band who invented it – are now not that good at it. It did its job, but it was clumsy, and scant on soul. Even Serge now describes it as “sketchy nonsense”.
But then something strange happened. It became obvious as soon as Tom Meighan claimed – while on Mani’s shoulders – to be defenders of the north (despite being from Leicester) and denouncing art-rock posers the world over, that for one-liners alone, we had ourselves the most brilliant rock-star personalities we’d had in years. The tone needing lowering, and here were the boys to do it. In two years of partying with Kasabian and their superstar mates, NME has been accused of resembling a “gay Spanish golfer” by Liam Gallagher and of “looking like you have a tiny penis” by Kelly Osbourne.
And even before the Gallaghers anointed Serge and Tom their natural successors, it was obvious that here was a band that were going to unite you indie scruffs with the Kappa crew in no way since Oasis. Kasabian became massive, and we overlooked the fact that they were just, y’know, alright, because they were so much fun to have around.
And then an even stranger thing happened. You see, a shit rock star will cower and baulk in the face of untold success, and start calling their entire audience stupid and blinkered. A brilliant one will dive in feet first, channel this adoration, feed off it and send it back at monstrous gigs that feel like being at church. And this is what happened to Kasabian: just over a year ago, stood in a field somewhere, it suddenly struck us that they’d become an absolutely amazing band. Knowing all this to be true, Tom and Serge started talking up this record a long time ago, claiming repeatedly to be “pregnant” with something that sounded like “Marc Bolan smoking crack with Doctor Who” (can we rest that quote now, please?). Which would have been mighty awkward if ‘Empire’ had been shit. But it’s not. What they have pulled off, in fact, is the Britpack’s first great leap forward.
Plenty’s been made of this new, glam-rock direction, and the opening shot, ‘Empire’ itself, struts forth in platforms with its arse back and its chest forward. But that’s not the whole story. ‘Shoot The Runner’ (the next single) picks up there, but careers off midway into a flourishing, middle-eastern string loop. By now, we’re in full-on summer of love mode, and ‘Last Trip (In Flight)’ is total Beatles-in-Marrakech psychedelia, before bleeding into out-and-out sunshine pop ‘Me Plus One’. “Here you come to take me away/Like a little white rabbit from yesterday”, drawls Tom. Obviously, he’s on about ecstasy, but by now we’re in such a hyper-real Wonderland that he could be singing about Alice and it’d still make sense. Before, Tom was simply the king of the mantra-chant vocal. Here he’s grown into a Baby Jagger, a singer of soul, while Serge’s sleek, voluble guitar, is higher in the mix, taking the lead over the stick-some-beats-over-it approach of last time. Here, the beats are underneath, and more clever. Which isn’t to say they’ve abandoned the dancefloor completely: ‘By My Side’ – a thunderous retelling of dub period Primal Scream is the best tune by a mile, and anyone from Danger Mouse to Simian to Paul bloody Oakenfold could get their hands on it and find themselves with clubland’s next big crossover hit. The only bit that really doesn’t work is the lego-techno instrumental ‘Apnoea’ – a token gesture that feels tacked on at the behest of some Um&Aah man wanting to “ensure maximum penetration across all demographics”. You can skip it, but you won’t want to skip ‘British Legion’ – the Serge-sung acoustic ballad that wobbles the line between genius and excruciating because it, by their own admission, is very, very funny. And then we have ‘The Doberman’. Oh, we have to tell you about ‘The Doberman’ – the thundering finale that channels the spirit of AC/DC through ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ to make the sound of the end of the world. Next to Muse’s deranged ‘Knights Of Cydonia’, it’s the most ludicrously ace song of the year, sounding less like a closing track than a big-budget season finale.
Through sheer, bloody-minded belief, weapons-grade stamina and a big, big imagination, Kasabian have willed themselves into brilliance. There’s going to be a hearty scrap between this lot, Muse and the Monkeys when album of the year time comes round.