‘You can have your party / in your mama’s garage’ sings Sean Van Vleet on the opening line of first track “Steal Your Heart Away” and with this party soundtrack including “Bowie in the background / crying over girls” we are to understand that an evening spent with Empires is a retro-cool experience of quality 70s and 80s New Wave classics, and where you might hope that whoever’s mama it is has remembered to park her vehicles on the driveway. What are we actually getting from Empires though? There’s no denying that they make a densely atmospheric guitar sound or that Van Vleet’s songwriting has a definable sense of purpose and considering that Garage Hymns has been two years in production there’s every expectation that ‘Garage Hymns’ is a significant moment for these Chicago musicians who first got together in 2006.
It could turn into a significant moment for us too. More direct than the Hold Steady, grittier than the Strokes, and slightly more of an actual Rock Band than their definable influence Kings Of Leon, Empires are a band you’re likely to hear much more of in the next year or so. Already rated highly by Rolling Stone who featured them prominently in 2011, Empires are that slightly rarer than usual phenomenon, the credible mainstream band whose music cuts across the usual Indie/Metal boundaries and whose songs eventually turn up in all kinds of unexpected places, the sort of band not every scene hipster will openly admit to liking while sneaking the album tracks onto their music player.
So, is it beer stained heads down no nonsense mindless boogie time? That’s for you the listener to decide. Certainly, tracks like “Hard Times” and “Keep It Steady” take time honoured 12 bar formulas and are invested with guitar pyrotechnics, surging rhythmic energies and Van Vleet’s personable and well practised vocal style. This makes for the kind of edgy powerchord sound that transgresses style boundaries and has the easy familiarity of the bands which Empires take their cues from, such as the scorching country rock based ‘Lord Have Mercy’ which can possibly trace its influences all the way back to Bachman Turner Overdrive, or the stage wrecking stomp of “Hell’s Heroes”. Empires do also possess a more subtle approach to their music though, and “Night Is Young” is a ballad portrayed with touches of an epic grandeur that hints at where Empire’s music might develop through their next album. My personal favourite ‘Runaway’ shows Empires actual skill as musicians to some effect, a straight ahead three chord riff given a combination of tightly played drumming and intricate guitar timing to near hypnotic effect. Lastly, “We Lost Magic” is the sound of Empires delving into their own waves of generated powers and ends only too suddenly, a song that started life as an acoustic strum-along that’s built into a triumphant powerballad.
Party round at Empire’s place then? One or two other music writers might find grounds to get a bit more critical of Empire’s music than I am, but albums such as Garage Hymns need to be heard on their own terms, and making comparisons with more obviously inventive or experimental bands wouldn’t quite get across what Empires are achieving. Anyway, I was in just the right mood for listening to an album such as this, one whose songwriting and musicianship are the equal of some very well known and highly regarded bands of recent years, an album that’s produced with just the right touch of classic FM rock gloss, from a band that Rolling Stone didn’t waste page space over and so for me at least it’s over to the Van Vleet garage for a reassessment of the works of Tin Machine from 10pm onwards and you are also invited, just remember not to open those beers over that Trans Am bonnet.