SXSW exclusive first listen: Empire of the Sun

ANDREW MURFETT reports back from a hairdressing salon at South By Southwest, where a lucky few got a tiny first taste of Empire of the Sun’s new album Ice on the Dune.

Just as the world began digesting a typically cryptic missive announcing Empire of the Sun ’s second album release earlier this week, posters heralding the return of the enigmatic duo began appearing around Austin.

Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore were not showcasing here at South By Southwest, but they would debut some new music here. This being Empire of the Sun, and with the album having been christened Ice on the Dune, the way they went about it was always going to be a little strange.

No, neither Steele or Littlemore were in attendance. However their record label dressed up a shopfront on Sixth Street and, competing in a brutal mid-afternoon Friday slot against prominent parties from Spin, Rolling Stone, Virgin Mobile, Fader, Paste and Spotify, they hosted a mini listening party.

By 2pm when the doors of Silent Salon – yes, they chose a hairdressing salon – opened, a queue almost a block-long snaked down Sixth Street. The lure was obvious: a first-time listen four months ahead of its release-date.

Upon entering, we were handed a set of Silent Disco style wireless headphones and pushed towards a bar serving complimentary tequila cocktails. The salon’s hair-washing stations were filled with ice, serving as beer coolers. As the room quickly filled, attendees scrambled to secure a barber chair. A photo booth (branded by the tequila company) was attracting a crowd. And within 15 minutes the room was heaving.

So, what did we hear? Well… Although there was nothing as concrete as, say, a song’s title information given, we were offered five tracks (we think) mixed together in a ten-minute loop that played continuously in our earphones.

“It seems it will be more of the same from Empire of the Sun.”

There’s clearly a couple of strong potential singles lurking in the mix. And with the blueprint of their debut reasonably broad – and flamboyant – once again it shifts styles frequently.

The first track we heard is the most obvious “hit”. It’s the kind of slow-building, determinedly buoyant pop song these two have previously mastered. And the vocal hook is simple, but instantly memorable: “Loving every minute cause you make me feel so alive…” This appears to be the album’s potential ‘Walking on a Dream’ moment.

The next tune began with, ahem, dare we say mystical seemingly Indian-inspired samples before sliding into a more conventional beat-driven pop sound. It was notable for some heavily auto-tune affected vocals from Steele. Lyrically, Steele, as he does several times on the album, sings of yearning to escape. The main vocal hook on this track: “Let’s go running away, we can always be together.” Deep stuff.

Another snippet of the album we heard was a song that was anchored mostly by electric guitars. The lyrics were mostly incomprehensible; however there was an audible reference to crystals, which is, once again, keeping things very much in character for this outfit.

Not to compare this too much to the last album, but the next track heard was instantly evocative of ‘We Are The People’ (Instead of that song’s shout-out to 1975, this new one references 1979 and rhymes it with sublime!) It’s a very good tune.

Finally, another track began slowly before once again launching into some pulsating beats. It felt perhaps a little more substantial than some of the others featured.

From our limited exposure, it seems it will be more of the same from Empire of the Sun. There’s a couple of very obvious pop radio singles, some oblique references to crystals, and a sense that nobody knows what it all really means.

The album will be released worldwide in June.

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