After a surprising amount of press attention for a band yet to release a full album, Philadelphia’s Empath finally drop their debut: a fierce, spacey, cacophonous, 27-minute-long LP. Like the EP and singles that preceded it, Active Listening: Night On Earth is defined by manic mood swings. Plenty of great bands bring together disparate musicians in a singular unified voice. What’s thrilling about Empath is how they resist the singular. They sound like four people who sat in a room flexing their own freaky styles until — before they realized their interests might be wholly incompatible — the chaos created its own logic.
“Soft Shape” opens with twittering birds (at this point, an Empath signature) and a bulbous synth-pop riff; then frontwoman Catherine Elicson starts singing woozily, like she’s rocking hairbrush microphone in her bedroom mirror. She confesses she feels alone in a crowd; the music’s swirling clamor echoes the sentiment, then jumpcuts into “Pure Intent,” a shambling hardcore blast that gives way 2/3 through to an ambient instrumental softly strummed guitar and gentle synthesizer billowing. “Hanging Out Of Cars” lurches into another punk-ish rant, with galloping beats by drummer Garett Koloski (former rocket-engine of Perfect Pussy), Elicson announcing “desire ends in death” and “an empty space is the most I’ve ever felt” before it all dissolves into a trance-inducing weave of krautrock electronics and processed babble.
The juxtapositions shouldn’t make sense, but they do, and not just because they can recall the Bad Brains’ radical mix of high-speed mosh-pit soundtracks and dub space-outs. In 2019, after all, random shuffle-mixes are as common a listening experience as programmed radio. And given the influence of playlists and streams shaped by corporate algorithms (Pop Punk’s Not Dead, in case you were wondering), it feels truly punk to slot a riot grrrl style tirade (“Heaven”) next to meditative organ and guitar noodling (“IV”). What may once have been considered ADD is now the new normal.
The muddiness of the recording functions as a unifying effect, although sometimes you wish the murk would clear a bit, because the music makes you want to push up front and hear what’s happening. Like on “Rowing,” an apparent riff on poet Anne Sexton’s “The Awful Rowing Toward God,” in which Elicson declares “I threw it all into the wind and abandoned that island,” and the band pulls itself together into a single wild, flailing beast for two-plus minutes — throwing it all into the wind together, evidently happy to be off their respective islands, at least for a while.