Instant Empire’s debut album features 10 tracks of anthemic rock that splits the difference between post-punk and singalong-ready power pop. Lamplight Lost often manages to hit a sweet spot where jagged edges meet smooth melodies, and it’s an album with enough complexity to make it a more rewarding experience after multiple listens. Getting these different musical elements to cohere takes skill, and veteran producers Jonathan Low (The National, The War on Drugs) and John Vanderslice (Spoon, The Mountain Goats) certainly have a hand in making it happen as well as it does here.
Vocalist Scotty Saunders is the band’s most immediately striking element. His conversational cadence slides between speaking and singing in a way that recalls The Hold Steady’s acquired-taste frontman Craig Finn. But unlike Finn’s flat Midwestern affect, Saunders sounds like he comes straight out of an old neighborhood in Philadelphia. Instant Empire is based in Denver, and Saunders actually comes from Texas via South Carolina, but somehow he’s got the vocal patterns of one of the less-famous American dialects. His unique voice isn’t pretty, but it is distinctive and powerful. Whether he’s hitting the top of his range in the shout-along chorus to first single “Dead Air” or stretching every word out in the slow burning closer “Strike the Stages”, Saunders is always intense and passionate. That passion serves the band well regardless of the style of each song.
“Young Adult Fiction” opens the album with a bass (and handclap) solo, quickly followed by a nearly guitar-free verse. It puts the focus directly on Instant Empire’s rhythm section, bassist Aaron Stone and drummer Tristan Kelley. Stone’s buzzing, melodic basslines drive the whole song and Kelley’s beats are a touch more intricate than usually found in a straightforward power-pop song. Combined with Saunders’ delivery, it’s a catchy, impressive start to the record, and it bleeds into “N.E.S.W.”, a punk-style track anchored by Saunders’ on-the-edge vocals and steered once again by the rhythm section.
Instant Empire doesn’t stick to one formula, though. The intertwining guitars of Lou Kucera and Sean Connaughty contribute to the band’s post-punk feel. There’s a lot of tension and atmospherics in their playing, and not much in the way of barre chords. A rocker like “Balloons” could have been straightforward, but the guitarists avoid the simple chords for something more complex, which fits nicely with the conflicted tone of the song’s lyrics. Similarly, the guitars in slow ballad “Mind the Gap” eschew the power ballad clichés in favor of Explosions in the Sky-style open spaces. In Lamplight Lost’s second half, the band seemingly decides to remind listeners that they’re a six-piece outfit. Keyboardist Doug Chase, who is almost completely in the background on side one, is suddenly all over the place. His fuzzy tones give “Zoo Lions” most of its heft and his Moog-style sounds dominate the long instrumental interlude of the uptempo “Flickering Youth.”
Not quite everything on the album works for the band. The pleasant “Neighbor Girl” is a bit too U2-influenced indie-pop for Instant Empire to fully pull off. Saunders’ unique vocal delivery is muted for perhaps the only time on the album, the instruments never really find a strong riff, and the nearly five-minute running time does the song no favors. On the other hand, the similarly midtempo “North Dakota” works precisely because of Saunders. His lyrics open with the statement “I ain’t never been to North Dakota / Got an idea in my head, of what I think it’s like.” Then he goes on to describe in great, evocative detail what he imagines while the band sits in the background and let the lyrics and vocals take center stage. With the chorus “What was poisoned here / Lasts forever here”, followed by a whole verse concerning wells and money, it certainly sounds like Saunders is excoriating the fracking boom enveloping the state at the moment. The intense ending finds the band rising to meet Saunders as he shouts, “With every fissure and every crack / Every decision you won’t take back home.”
Lamplight Lost is a strong album that nevertheless finds Instant Empire with room to grow. Occasionally the combination of a nontraditional vocalist and guitarists who focus on atmosphere and interesting (but not particularly catchy) guitar lines leaves their songs in need of a stronger melodic idea. But most of the album is an invigorating listen, and it’s one of the better debuts this year.