Written by Dustin Michael
When I first heard the debut album “Walking on a Dream” from Empire of the Sun back in 2008, I was immediately hooked. And although many music critics blasted this new collaboration between Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore for various reasons, electronic music lovers all over the world instantly cherished Steele’s Bowie-esque vocals, Littlemore’s throwback electropop, and all the additional over-the-top costuming (headdresses and swordfish dancers included). The bizarre black-and-white music video titled “Eclipse Broadcast” further fueled the flames of the band’s prowess and potential. I guess at the time we all needed something in the EDM underground that had the potential to dwarf what was going on in the pedestrian pop world.
And that dream continues to live on with Empire of the Sun’s sophomore album “Ice on the Dune,” and with it the return of Emperor Steele and the Prophet. Rumors of the new album have been bubbling around for the past 2 years, but no one really had any idea of what to expect. Would it be just as catchy? Would every song be as cool as the late single “Breakdown”? Would the live shows become even more strange and spectacular? Would the swordfish girls have their stolen masks returned by the Abercrombie party thieves that stole them? We all hoped for the best, and in June of 2013 we got to hear the Empire strike back.
“Ice on the Dune” begins with a cinematic instrumental titled “Lux” which sounds like an invention of Danny Elfman and Henry Mancini for a 1960s foreign legion adventure – a very fitting intro indeed. Then the formula shifts to an onslaught of epic dance music that’s as well-produced as anything out there today. Track after track of chorus-catchy, sun-kissed club hits fueled by Steele’s utterly unique vocals, including a thread of flawlessly up-pitch shifted falsetto deliveries from Steele not heard on the previous productions. The gist is that everything is decidedly more “Pnau” sounding than the previous release. The album’s second song “DNA” references to lyrical content heard in the debut, the freedom of youthful love, worlds to explore, and throwing care to the winds of change. Empire of the Sun is known for their simple, yet appealing new-age lyrical citations – and paired with Luke Steele’s uncanny ability to mold any unformatted sentence into any melody with surgical precision, the duo has secured their strengths. The video for the first single, “Alive,” reintroduced the band to their fans in the spring of the year, and the song is currently working its way up the charts as I’m writing this. “Concert Pitch” sounds like a classic hit from Ric Ocasek, and uses an orchestra of simple vintage synth sounds. The title track “Ice on the Dune” is another laid-back summer dance track with a ‘running-away-with-you-freedom’ message (a common Empiric theme). “Awaking” is one of the catchiest songs on the record; complete with a slow and funky rhythm section, vintage ’90s R&B synth stylings, and some fantastic vocal work by Steele. The following track, “I’ll Be Around,” is a strange and driving pop nocturne, while the instrumental “Old Favors” picks up the album’s club-styled pace to previous levels. “Celebrate” almost seems like a shout out to Daft Punk with its disco funk dance mode and pitch-shifted vocals. “Surround Sound” is a stumbling swing-time EDM bouncer followed by the ’80s euro-pop styled anthem “Disarm.” Now swearing that I’m listening to a lost Ziggy Stardust single, the album is completed with “Keep a Watch.”
Although this sophomore album is a long overdue gem for Empire fans, it does not scratch the aural itch that songs like “Swordfish Hotkiss Nights” and “Breakdown” have left in our brains. Surely I speak for all battle-hardened Emperions when I suggest that the next album focus more on the utterly unique Luke/Nick funk-strangeness that we’ve all grown to adore, and the critics to hate.