What would happen if the sounds of Daft Punk, Tiesto and New Order all collided? Empire of the Sun provides a well-crafted, pleasing answer to that question. Coming off the million-selling Walking on a Dream, the expectations are definitely high for this album, and Steele + Littlemore go out of their way to exceed them and then some.
“Lux” offers up Empire’s take on the “orchestra warming up before the big show” intro tune, albeit with a bit more of an organic flourish than most listeners might expect from an electro/pop outfit. Also, it comes off a bit more brash and outgoing than most songs like it, which sets it apart from the pack quite nicely. This folds neatly into the velvety chords of “DNA”, which wastes no time in ramping up into a toe-tapping beat, as the vocals insistently ask “Can’t you hear us calling you”? As the kaleidoscope of sound floods the speakers, a ballad unfolds that manages to sound like every kind of love song ever made. It isn’t quite a paean to puppy love, it isn’t quite a sappy love-sick ballad. It’s a simple and uplifting celebration of companionship inviting the listener to make of it whatever they will. It’s easy to come off cheesy trying to do a song with such widespread appeal, but there’s nothing cheesy about “DNA” and it makes for a fine taste of things to come.
“Alive” takes the best of chillout house music and rocks the foundations. Musically, the song is dripping with Ibiza after-party gleam; and yet it still has that insistent pulse of energy that begs the party-goers who are all danced out to get up one last time and sway to the music. This “encore to get you moving after the rave has ended” feeling is sprinkled liberally throughout the entire album, even in the slower numbers. Even later on in the proceedings, “Disarm” feels like yet another joyous “groove-up”(not quite a rave-up, because it’s not that fast). Empire’s genius here is sneaking a giddy dance vibe into songs that are otherwise tailor-made for cooling off at the after party. “Awakening” is another fine entry into this category, with vocals torn straight from the pages of the best disco cuts of the ‘70s, all wrapped in a tune that is distinctly rooted in the here and now.
The album’s title track “Ice on the Dune” sums things up neatly; it’s a giddy, effusive melding of all the best from so many disparate sounds. There’s the vocals, which recall the best pop songs of the ‘80s. The beat that is so glittery you can almost see the disco ball gleaming as the music spins up into an effortlessly shiny ballad. Even as the lyrics tilt ever so slightly to cheesy extremes, the sonic bliss they come wrapped in manages makes this an easy pill to swallow. It’s just that good, really. The track ends a bit abruptly, but a well done remix could fix this easily enough.
Tucked in amongst all this get up and dance energy, there is plenty of deftly moving, yet subdued, joy to be found. “I’ll Be Around” can play like the more relaxed cousin of 311’s “I’ll be Here Awhile”. It’s all softly-sung vocals and evocative sounds, music made to listen to deep in the woods under a starry sky, or perhaps a forest clearing in the sunlight. Whatever your particular vision of the perfect place to relax may be, this song is built from the ground up to conjure that image.
“Keep a Watch” is an oddly subdued closing to the proceedings—it’s part lullaby, part spaced-out epic—almost conjuring visions of Elton John at his most off the wall. It’s both a fitting way to end (slowing things down a bit) and also surprising, considering the insistent but measured vibe that informs every track that preceded it. Disjointed ending or not, Empire of the Sun has delivered a well-blended mix of disco, electropop and just plain fun that evokes the greats without copying them outright. That’s not an easy trick to pull off, but they do it well and continue towards a bright future with this release.