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Empath - Active Listening: Night on Earth Music Album Reviews

The Philadelphia quartet’s full-length debut showcases their defiant brand of noise-pop, a big rainbow of chaos.

The ecstatic gestures of Empath’s noise rock tend to fall in and out of focus. At first, the band lets you get a firm grip on the shape of their songs; then the songs lose their shape entirely. In the first 30 seconds of their full-length debut Active Listening: Night on Earth, Empath weave together synth-pop bass, a rock’n’roll backbeat, and a muted funk guitar. Tying together the ensemble is a sour whistle whose tone lands somewhere between Clinic’s ubiquitous melodica and Neutral Milk Hotel’s singing saw. It’s loud, it drowns out everything but lead singer Catherine Elicson’s voice, and it immediately marks Empath as a group who’s not interested in tidying their music up into easily digestible categories. They are here to make a mess.

In 2018, Empath released a single called “The Eye” that worked a little like a mission statement. It’s an inexhaustibly catchy song that mixes frosty synth tingles with a breakneck drum part (Empath’s drummer, Garrett Koloski, used to play with the punk band Perfect Pussy). Nothing on Active Listening feels quite so urgent or alive as that one gem of a track, but Empath set themselves a ludicrously high bar.

The same destabilizing dopamine rush behind last year’s Liberating Guilt and Fear EP courses through this album. Songs bleed into each other; disparate elements clash in thrilling displays of color and irreverence. A militant beat runs beneath shoegaze-ready vocals and wiry, fingerpicked guitar chords on “Decor.” “Roses That Cry” begins with a couple bars of carnival piano and ends with a squall of feedback bleeding out into silence. By mixing tooth-gnashing drumbeats with light, playful synthesizer touches, Empath dig away at the absurdity of feeling both helpless and completely stressed out. Teenagers feel this way, but so do adults locked into exploitative labor situations teetering on the edge of financial downfall. Late capitalism infantilizes, and Empath responds by throwing hardcore punk and Kidz Bop in the same rusty garbage disposal.

While many bands with similar aesthetic strategies (like their forebears in No Age or contemporaries in American Pleasure Club) tend to chase abjection as a primary effect, Empath never succumbs to self-pity. Rather than wallowing, they fight tooth and nail through their own personal hell to clamber up to a place of relative freedom. “I just want to get to heaven,” Elicson sings on “Heaven,” a rework of a song originally released in 2016. She sings it without bitterness in between earnest fits of screaming like a true article of faith.

When you’re exhausted, there’s a point where everything starts to get hilarious. The body’s crumbling resolve starts to seem like a big joke, and a euphoric daze starts to glimmer around the edges of your suffering. No band working today simulates this state as well as Empath, whose music finds explosive beauty in the bare fact of survival. They’re the oasis in the shitstorm of your life, a welcome reminder that there’s always something waiting to rise above the horizon of your pain.

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