Empire of the Sun, ‘Ice on the Dune’ – Album Review
Empire of the Sun have never been shy about their ambitions — and they’ve never been afraid of looking like idiots. The Australian duo’s debut album, 2008’s ‘Walking on a Dream,’ was as puzzling as it was delectable: a stew of electro-pop grooves and art-rock atmospheres, tied together by a ridiculous sci-fi concept and ‘Dune’-esque cover art. It was also pretty damn original, though the music (released during indie-rock’s glammy boom, in the wake of MGMT‘s debut) was largely ignored outside of their home country.
For their follow-up, ‘Ice on the Dune,’ Empire (Nick Littlemore and frontman Luke Steele) formulated an even more ambitious plan: dominating American pop radio. On paper, the idea seems as outlandish as one of Steele’s oft-donned viking helmets; instead, they’re so convincing playing pop stars that you wonder why they ever bothered with artful fussiness in the first place.
Empire didn’t screw around here. They wanted to craft a slick, earworm-loaded pop smash, so they took every necessary step, recording across multiple countries in various posh studios (including the L.A. digs where Michael Jackson built a listening room for his pet chimp) and collaborating with some of the most notable pop craftsmen on the planet (Mark “Spike” Stent, Jason Cox, Serban Ghenea). Over the past few years, Steele’s stepped up his pop credentials, writing for artists like Jay-Z, Usher and Beyonce. And it shows: ‘Dune’ is defined by the Europop-styled sonic tics — the four-on-the-floor pulses, the wide-screen synths, the EQ drops, the cranked-to-11 dynamics — currently dominating American pop radio.
No, ‘Dune’ isn’t high art. But it’s one of the most immaculately crafted pop albums of the past decade. From woozy, fist-pumping arena-synth anthems like ‘DNA’ and ‘Concert Pitch’ to the electro-psych swirl of ‘Alive’ to the ultra-slick title-track, which resembles ‘Rumours’-era Fleetwood Mac drifting blissfully underwater, every track here (minus the swirling orchestral opener “Lux”) would be a single in a just musical world.
Who knows if the American public will latch onto the hooks? (Letting this album slip by and drift into obscurity wouldn’t be the record-buying public’s first bone-head move.) But if any band on the planet deserves a blockbuster, the chance to plank on a million (and maybe buy some new headdresses), it’s these crafty, kooky bastards.