Tom Conrad has a lot riding on this release. After leaving The Academy Is… in 2006, not much was heard from Conrad until late 2007 when the formation of the band empires was announced. The band were constantly writing and creating songs through the whole of 2007, beginning the recording process in October and completing it four months later. The album, named Howl, was available for free download online, and included a selection of Conrad’s photography.
Howl opens with the atmospheric ‘Spit the Dark’, creating a dark, addictive sound that soon builds into a much catchier refrain. Van Vleet’s vocals aren’t showcased as well as they possibly could be for the ever-important first impression, but the band certainly show their talent for upbeat, clever rock songs. ‘I Want Blood’ follows this, and is a definite contrast to the slow-building ‘Spit the Dark’, crashing straight into the once-again addictive beats and this time Van Vleet’s vocals work well. From another band, it could be construed as too much too soon, not allowing the listener to gain a sense of progress from one song to the next. However, empires manage to make it work, and the song definitely both gains attention and manages to hold it. ‘Modern Love’ is different again, following the distinctive empires feature of switching from slow, stripped sections to fuller, more energetic ones.
‘Believe’ has a definite Beatles-esque feel to it, and the use of chorus on certain lines sits well with the tone of the song. A mostly acoustic song, empires seem to have attained the perfect balance of quieter moments building up to stronger refrains, Van Vleet asking don’t you want to believe? in an infectious, melodic tune. ‘Late Night Rendezvous’, by contrast, has much more of a Men, Women & Children tone. The dance influence is strong, and sounds a little bit too much like At Night I Like To Fight for it to have the strong impact it would otherwise deserve.
‘Warning Mark’ is one of the only, if not the only, songs on the record that has a touch of similiarity. The song itself is in no way generic, but has a familiar tone to it, in a way that gives that feeling of have I heard this before? Nothing about it seems to stick and, although I hate to call it a ‘weak spot’, it is definitely one of empires’ less solid songs. ‘Don’t Let It Fool You’ is over two minutes in length, but seems much shorter, almost acting as an introduction for ‘Under The Bright Lights’. This is, in my opinion, one of empires’ strongest songs from the album. Powerful and moving, Van Vleet tells the listener we’ll watch the sky explode in half, and the entire atmosphere of the last night on earth, of watching the — as Van Vleet says — sky explode in half is definitely present. ‘Under The Bright Lights’ has to be ultimately empires’ greatest triumph, creating a sense of feeling that many of the other songs come close to but fail to achieve.
If anything, there is a sense of too much from Howl. The songs seem undecided on being slow ballads, or faster and catchier rock songs, and the mix of both ensure the record comes across as feeling more like listening to your favourite radio station than a debut album. Some of the songs are perhaps too different, and can be a little confusing, but if anything empires have definitely made sure they cannot be placed into a definite genre, choosing instead to sample everything they can — and, surprisingly, they do it well.
3.5 out of 4 high fives.