Empire Of The Sun – Ice on the Dune

7/10

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).  The difference between the the latter and aforementioned is in how much the former two disregard mainstream expectations, and abandon genres they’ve come to define (i.e. Daft Punk and EDM), while Empire of the Sun seem fully willing to indulge those expectations even further.  The results far from suffer at the expense.

Empire of the Sun think big – as big as their name, 80′s sci-fi album imagery, album titles, and festival histrionics all imply.  Also as big as the accompanying press release for Ice on the Dune, which refers to collaborators Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore as “Emperor” Steele and “Lord” Littlemore, and which identifies the duo’s vision as a “post-apocalyptic psychedelic adventure.” The album is pegged as the ‘second act’ of the ‘Empire of the Sun biopic’, and Emperor Steele describes the title track accordingly:  “It’s about how the Emperor’s head-dress is stolen by The King Of Shadows, bringing chaos to the world.” Littlemore amps up the melodrama one further when he says: “Walking On A Dream was all about surrendering to the music. Ice On The Dune is more aspirational. We want to shoot out positivity like an arrow from our chest.”

Mission accomplished.

For all the grandiosity, the heavy ornamentation, the sonic and visual presentation of a New Wave band lost in space and time, the songs are as big as they are made out to be.  And with how much range. ‘I’ll Be Around’ is a careful whisper, a piece of mature 80s pop with a melody that hints at Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time’, with lyrics that do the same (especially when they go “Time after time, I’ll be aroooound…”  An atmosphere of synthetic restraint is felt all over. About this song in particular, Steele says, “It always had a great melody but we must have done about eight versions of it. There’s even a Pet Shop Boys kind of version somewhere. All the time Nick and I would look at each other during the sessions and say: ‘Does it get you here, in the heart?’ In the end, it had to be a ballad.”

Another surprisingly-undanceable number is album closer Keep a Watch, which offers a slow beat, offering a David Bowie-esque croon over melancholic bass and keys, rendering something to the mental effect of the Ziggy Stardust album cover.  It’s a tragic classic, and very much indicative of this duo’s capacity for a powerful melody.

On the flipside of the spectrum is ‘Awakening’, which inflates a Bee Gees dance-beat, with everything in Daft Punk’s pre-RAM arsenal. More of that unbridled energy shows up on the once-more Daft Punk-evocative (mostly in the backing robo-coder harmonies) ‘Surround Sound’, which rides on a pulsing jungle rhythm, with a bass line that pounds and begs you to imagine the kind of drum section will be required at Empire of the Sun’s next Coachella performance.

The album is full of high-energy, highly-infectious dance numbers–in a way that demands frequently radio play, big-budget festival spots, distasteful Kesha collaborations, and another five year break between this and album #3.  We can only hope these larger than life figures will beam their intergalactic gifts back to earth a little sooner the next time around.