Empires – “Hostage” (audio) (Premiere)

Chicago's Empires update the mid-'90s alternative rock formula to remarkably potent results, as this stellar single proves.

There have always been three types of bands that people could fawn over: those that push the envelope with each successive release (for better or worse), those that reliably churn out the exact same thing with each subsequent release, and those that don’t mind using existing genre tropes already in place but just so happen to use them with remarkable skill, making their music sound fresh even if they’re not venturing too far off pasture.

With a sound that’s very much rooted in classic mid- to late ’90s alternative rock, Chicago’s Empires don’t imitate those that come before so much as they emulate, taking the sounds of those FM bands synthesizing it into something that’s very much their own. With a very smart melodic sense, the band creates riff-rockers that create a distinct late-night atmosphere that still never ends up shying away from the brilliance of a good pop hook, crafting songs as beautiful as they are anthemic, as immediate as they are purposeful.

Although their major-label full-length, Orphan, is a ways off, the band is teasing fans with an EP called How Good Does it Feel, which was produced by John Congleton, who cut his teeth manning the boards for the likes of War on Drugs and St. Vincent. We here at PopMatters have heard the new record, and it is great (just wait ’til you get to hear the slinky six-string strut of “Glow”), but we are currently very thrilled to premiere what is so far the very reason we were drawn into these Empires in the first place: an extraordinary, stunning little number called “Hostage”:

With that riff that comes straight out of pre-millennial rock radio and a synth hook that somewhat grounds it in the sounds of today, lines like “there’s a heaven in the chemicals / an angel in the alcohol burned alive” show singer Sean Van Vleet’s commitment to creating a narrative through-line with his tunes, all as the song’s chorus proves to actually be not as emotionally clear cut as some may think, forcing the listener to cull their own meaning from it (even as they might be tempted to chant along).

We can’t tell you what it means, but what we can do is just take solace that with this one thundering pop salvo, Empires definitely has our attention, and if Orphans is any indication, will continue to do so for a long time to come.