Release Date: Jun 18, 2013
Record label: Astralwerks
Genre(s): Pop, Electronic, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
What would happen if the sounds of Daft Punk, Tiesto and New Order all collided? Empire of the Sun provides a well-crafted, pleasing answer to that question. Coming off the million-selling Walking on a Dream, the expectations are definitely high for this album, and Steele + Littlemore go out of their way to exceed them and then some. “Lux” offers up Empire’s take on the “orchestra warming up before the big show” intro tune, albeit with a bit more of an organic flourish than most listeners might expect from an electro/pop outfit.
The unlikely pairing of Luke Steele (of sublime psychedelicists the Sleepy Jackson) and Nick Littlemore (one half of Elton John's dance proteges, Pnau) was responsible for one of the freshest-sounding albums of 2008. The follow-up takes that record's template – naggingly catchy pop given a euphoric dance twist – and marries it to an even stronger set of songs. Alive and Concert Pitch are deliriously upbeat confections, but a whole album in that vein could be capable of inducing dental caries at 50 paces.
After experiencing a worldwide hit with the title track of their 2009 album, Walking on a Dream, Empire of the Sun did the sensible thing and made a follow-up album that capitalizes on the glossy, sunny pop of that song. Instead of exploring some of the more esoteric avenues they started down on their debut, on Ice on the Dune the duo of Nick Littlemore and Luke Steele focus with laser-sharp intensity on creating an album that is 110 percent POP with no sharp edges and all glittering sunshine, blown out to gigantic proportions. In less skilled hands, such a tactic could lead to an over-produced trinket that's good for maybe half a listen and then gets tossed aside.
Perhaps it's unfair to feel slightly short-changed. Ice on the Dune is a pretty impressive pop album. But it's hard not to wonder what might have been had just a bit of the fanciful imagination that goes into the visual side of Empire of the Sun been allowed to seep in. Just a hint of the dancing swordfish and the cryo bazooka might have sent Ice on the Dune into a more intriguing and adventurous place.
Empire Of The Sun’s debut album Walking On A Dream was something of a surprise international hit when it was released in 2008, and was a long time coming for the Australian duo of The Sleepy Jackson visionary Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore of Pnau. Now, they are faced with the challenge of expectation. Ice On The Dune is a follow up that meets that challenge wholeheartedly, but offers a different kind of joy than their debut – and one that is only sporadically fulfilling.
Despite initially seeming like the most incongruous of titles, Ice on the Dune is actually quite an apt title for a the blend of sheening glacial synths and summery pop shimmer found on Empire of the Sun’s second album. That’s a double-gloss of shimmery sheen. Relatively speaking, first set Walking on a Dream didn’t have many rough edges, but that’s not to say that Empire of the Sun didn’t colour outside the lines a bit...
When Empire of the Sun emerged in 2008, they were fascinating, even at a glance: Wearing costumes that evoked community-theater Flash Gordon, or perhaps the leaping wing-people from the NES version of Contra, they made cheery, brightly pumping synth music that suggested similar pop-culture carbon dating. "Walking on a Dream", their big hit, was so beguiling that Jay-Z flew them in from Perth to record for The Blueprint 3-- the most unlikely, out-of-context guest spot on a Jay-Z album since Lenny Kravitz on The Blueprint 2. Empire's Walking on a Dream was pop made by people fully intending to be famous, but part of its appeal was how endearingly homemade it felt.
The year 2013 is basically the party that the Aussie glam-wizards of Empire of the Sun traveled light years to DJ: David Bowie released his first album in 10 years, Pet Shop Boys are going on tour, and Australia was empirically named the “happiest place on earth.” But now that they’re back, it seems all they want to do is escape. Judging by their New Wave-influenced sophomore release, the duo’s getaway vehicle of choice is a DeLorean and the destination is “A meadow where we lie back in the spring of 1979” (“DNA”). Time to go, Doc.
Successful Eighties-zonked dance bands like Passion Pit and even Foster the People make their airy glitz stick by impacting it with ambivalence. This Aussie duo go for a simpler, sucrose-overdose approach on their second album: escapist New Wave disco full of trance-y gloss and hooky know-how on par with Taco, if not the Buggles. (Luke Steele was in the indie-pop band the Sleepy Jackson, and Nick Littlemore was in the electro act Pnau.) "Dream time/It's our special place," they sing on "DNA." The vintage-Daft Punk cheese platter "Celebrate" and album-ending Bowie joke "Keep a Watch" are foamy fun, but too often Ice on the Dune just feels like a lobotomy on the dance floor.
Luke Steele’s career has rarely made much sense. Even when the Australian was in The Sleepy Jackson he’d sing about wearing miniskirts into town, priests with sewn-up eyes and Satan trespassing in his back garden. In interviews he’d go on about his songs being surfboards he rides into the ether to kiss God’s balls, or some such hallucinogenic crazy-talk.
A band comfortable in their own skin can be a wonderful thing. Granted, when talking of Empire Of The Sun, that skin is likely to be augmented with facepaint, glitter and a silly hat, but on their second album the duo-from-down-under have clearly resolved to be the best they can be by being themselves. Luckily for them, through either serendipity or good planning, that’s exactly what’s required.
It’s been a good year for disco and overdue comebacks. Daft Punk made sweeps last month with their long-awaited Random Access Memories. Phoenix followed up their commercial breakthrough (2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix) with vintage nightclub sampler Entertainment. And here we have Australian dance duo Empire of the Sun’s Ice on the Dune, the overdue sophomore follow up to 2008’s Walking on Dream (that was five years ago).