Overly experimental guitarist decides to record a concept album about life, death and the universe and channel it through the listener’s imagination. Sound a bit too much like hard work? It is.
While John Frusciante may have been the driving force behind the better albums of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ later period, the enigmatic guitarist’s solo work is renown for being wildly uneven and often painfully experimental. However his more recent releases, particularly 2004’s Shadows Collide and 2005’s Curtains, finally saw Frusciante harness the wandering Syd Barret-ness of his earlier records in preference for songs which were more focused and consistently melodic. Unfortunately his latest effort and 11th solo record, The Empyrean, while containing moments of resonance and including guest spots by Pepper Flea and Johnny Marr, once again has the artist reveling in self indulgence.
In a way all the signs of an overly experimental record were there. Frusciante himself labeled The Empyrean a concept album in the sense that it is meant to tell one story. The titles of the songs conjure up notions of religion, the universe and elements which stand outside of time and space. In a blog kept by Frusciante while recording the album, he explained that “The Empyrean is a story that has no action in the physical world. It all takes place in one persons mind throughout his life.” In later posts, Frusciante stated that there are various ways people can interpret the album and that he deliberately chose words and sounds which would appeal to people’s sub-conscious. Thus, one would be justified in approaching this disc with a healthy degree of trepidation. Really, it all sounds a little too much like hard work.
The first track of the album, the nine-minute instrumental “Before the Beginning” opens with the eerily lovely sound of two chords being played before the clatter and twang of something being hit interrupts. The drums kick in abrasively and the electric guitar half soars and half screeches its way over the steady rhythm. It does sound occasionally pretty, but it's a little monotonous. At one point the drums get a little louder, a little more purposeful and one gets the feeling the song may be building to something new, but apart from some reverb and distortion, nothing ever really changes.
Following the opener is a cover of Tim Buckley’s hauntingly lovely “Song to Siren”. It may seem a surprising choice by Frusciante, but Buckley, a fellow solo avant-garde, was also an artist with a tendency toward experimentalism and prided art for art’s sake. The cryptic and mystical lyrics of the original fit in with the mood of The Empyrean and while overwrought, there is something beautiful to Frusciante’s rendition. His voice does not come close to Buckley’s but over dappled, glimmering electronics, Frusciante infuses the song with the same delicacy and desperation.
Things picks up in pace with third track “Unreachable”, the beat of which sounds reminiscent of a latter day Chilli Pepper tune, albeit with Frusciane’s experimentalism tacked onto the end. Frusciante sings lines like “Reach into the darkness for what you can find / Travel great distance in your mind /The world gets stronger as you start tryin’ things.” Rather than confounding, these lyrics are bloated and devoid of resonance, a problem for much of the album. Musically another highlight is “Heaven”, a simple tune with Frusciante demonstrating a lovely range in his voice as he ominously repeats the line, “There’s a future that calling / But I don’t hear it coming.”
Apart from some highlights, most of the album is filled with tracks ranging from the absurd to the downright dull. Take “Dark/Light”, a sad piano ballad which begins with Frusciante crooning a morbid lament backed by the echo of a gothic chant. There is something quietly desperate in the song until it bizarrely breaks into a lighter techno jam, the gothic choir still echoing over bass and synths. Instead of sounding intriguing, the erratic nature of the song seems meaningless. The frantic tone of “Central”, with its heavy/soft dynamic quickly outstays its welcome. The almost spoken verses in “One More of Me” seem to be filled with an air of self righteousness, a sentiment which evades many of these tunes.
Rather than the introspective, bent-light reflection of his more recent works, The Empyrean is aiming for something different. While this album may mirror some type of personal imaginative journey for the listener, the truth is it is just too dreary and self-indulgent to endure in its entirety. Frusciante advised listeners to play this record as loud as possible, in dark living rooms. But honestly, I would not waste your night.