Live Reviews

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Altered Impressions: Empire of the Sun Under the Coachella Stars

It was a few years back when I first heard Empire of the Sun and was immediately drawn to their  genre-traversing folk-tinged electro sound. Soon

Luke Steele in the Emperors Clothes

after hearing ‘Walking on a Dream’ I tracked down the album and remember thinking how goofy Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore looked on their cover. If I hadn’t heard their music first and only saw their album cover I would have thought it was a soundtrack to a Sci-Fi film about an intergalactic empire. Although the cover is a little silly, the music is infectious as alot of music out of Australia seems to be these days with the output from Modular’s camp and other guys like Captn K of Picnic Records (who I particularly dig and have written about in previous posts). The obvious highlights are the first half of the album which includes “Standing on the Shore”, “Walking on a Dream”, “Half Mast”, “We Are the People”, and “Delta Bay” because they all share an obvious connection to each other whereas a few tunes further in almost derail the album due to  the pacing of it that slows down and just throws me off my groove. After chugging through the first half, I always find I need more patience to embrace tracks like “The World” because of how mellow it is in relation to what precedes it, not necessarily because its a bad song so I usually move forward to “Swordfish Hotkiss Night” and “Tiger By My Side” to bring that upbeat vibe back.

However, pursuing the impressions left behind in my noggin after their Saturday night set at Coachella, I am forced to re-assess my overall view of Empire of the Sun and explain how they have evolved (for me) in the aftermath of a weekend in the Desert.

Let me start of by saying that I wasn’t so sure what their live set would entail since what I heard/read of their performances in Los Angeles late in 2010 were not very positive, but maybe it is the vibe in the desert that suits them. Either way, what they brought to the stage on Saturday night  was an intoxicating dose of musical theatricality and fantasy that I truly did not expect to witness. For example, the Sci-Fi Futurism of the cover is brought to life on stage with Luke Steele fully in character as the Emperor of his imaginary Empire. Other characters populate the stage during different songs, some of which look like a cross between Parliament Funkadelic costumes and Emperor Palpatine ‘s Royal Guards in Return of the Jedi that you can see during their performance of “We Are the People.” During “Walking On a Dream,” the scene is less militaristic and the geisha-like dancers evoke a dreamy vibe that had all the revelers in the crowd fully immersed, at times almost seeming to bridge the gap between performer and the crowd as everyone one appeared to be swept up during the chorus of the song when Luke’s beautiful falsetto emerges after the pre-chorus, singing about the rapturous feeling of human connection:

We are always running for the thrill of it, thrill of it
always pushing up the hill, searching for the thrill of it
on and on and on we walk calling out, out again
never looking down I’m just in awe in what’s in front of me

Is it real now
when two people become one
I can feel it
when two people become one

It’s a simple enough hook but in the context of the performance, it was the perfect combination of words for the people who made that connection with the performers onstage.

The Emperor's Pink Guards...So fierce right?!

As standout tracks go, “We Are the People” is a particularly powerful track and has always been a favorite of mine, but it’s their live performance of it that has transformed me deeply. There is always one reaction I get with special music that starts in the middle of my chest, moves to my throat, chokes me up, fills my eyes with tears, while the original chill expands from the chest throughout my whole body leaving me speechless. I can close my eyes now anytime I listen to that song and remember where I was when I experienced the deep impact of that transformative moment while sitting poolside with my closest friends a few miles from Coachella watching the show projected on a large screen via the webcast. The convergence of visual choreography (costumes and dance moves included) in conjunction with their dreamy dance music in a place under the stars as beautiful as the Empire Polo Fields is the ideal setting for EOTS intergalactic dreamscape to unfold. Just watch the opening number “Standing on the Shore” and check out how they set the tone for everybody to become apart of their world.

Everything about this band seemed somehow disjointed as I mentioned above prior to seeing their live performance but I’m happy to revisit my views especially since with everything I thought about their album clearly exposes my failure  to fully grasp their vision since it is clear now that the

Dancers from Empire of the Suns performance

visual component is as intrinsic to the band as what you hear on record.With the union of these two elements, the fantasy component provides an escape from the chaos in the real world, and perhaps we need detours into imagined realms  such as this to remind us of the importance of human connection and during their performance it seemed that connection is exactly what the band had set out to accomplish. As I stood watching the set from the webcast, I definitely felt a profound connection from the live performance dramatically enhanced by the visual elements that, along with their music, transported me from my poolside oasis to the Empire of the Sun — can’t wait to go back!



Hercules and Love Affair, the new lineup performing at the Echoplex. Photo courtesy of Liz Caruso (

It’s been about two years since Los Angeles has played host to the amazing disco-house revivalists known as Hercules & Love Affair who came out here in promotion of their fantastic self-titled debut album back in 2008. The album, if you haven’t heard it, is mind-blowing, but the live show managed to elevate the listening experience to a different level, one that made me feel like I was witnessing something special happen. A feeling I hadn’t had since seeing Roni Size and Reprazant in ’98 debunk the notion that electronic music (especially in those rave days) had no soul and was the work of non-musical computer geeks, but with a full band in tow ended up sonically decimating the space and blowing minds in the process. Hercules & Love Affair managed to do the same, but whereas Roni Size brought to the stage the frenetic sound of Drum & Bass, Hercules revitalized Disco in a new way that groups like LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, & !!! had only managed to toy with.

Don’t make the mistake of being fooled by the Disco tag and assume that this Disco is in the same vein as Abba, Donna Summer, or any other overplayed acts you may have heard at a wedding because this isn’t music to dance to and forget about. The lyrics are serious, the vocals are emotive, and the music is euphoric, not formulaic and gaudy like popular disco became at the end of the seventies. In H&LA the bass lines are bouncy, the high hats poppin’ (the perfect foundation for a disco act), and vocal duties are taken up by whoever fits the mood of the groove.

At their show at the Echoplex, much of the sound that characterized the first album was thankfully still evident after a year of change to the group’s personnel and live show that ended with the departures of everyone but two original members, Andrew Butler (songwriter) & vocal stalwart Kim Ann Foxman to man the Hercules juggernaut through to their next phase. The touring band that originally consisted of a horn section, a bass player, keyboards, and a drummer has been replaced with a trinity of vocalists (Kim Ann with newcomers Aerea Negrot and Shaun Wright) and an array of electronic gizmo’s (drum machines & sequencers) under the guidance of Andrew Butler and DJ Mark Pistel (formerly of Meat Beat Manifesto).  With all of the sound elements being controlled at the back of the stage, it left a lot of room upfront for the vocalists to move about and get loose. Early in the show it was apparent that the vocalists needed a few verses to get comfortable in the mix as the kinks in their mic levels were worked out, but once that was accomplished the room quickly became a sweaty hot box of bodies in motion all chugging to the rhythm of Hercules & Love Affair. The setlist consisted of upbeat new material that will be featured on their second album, Blue Songs as well as a few carried over from the last album (Anthene, Blind), with the only notable difference being the sound of the new voices while the essence of H&LA’s music is still intact putting to rest my worries that the departures in the last year would mess with the quality of the groups output. Listening to the instrumentation and what I can discern of the lyrics, nothing about their sound seems to be lost, but I’ll only be sure about this once the album finally drops in January ’11. Moreover, the group seems to have gained something with their stripped down setup by making the sound more conducive to a club experience manipulated by only two as opposed to eight. The exclusion of competing personalities in the rhythm section opens the floor up to the vocalists to engage the audience with their presence and the emotive allure of the lyrics, which Aerea Negrot was especially able to do solely on the range and power of her voice. Although I do miss the glamour and vocals of former vocalist Nomi Ruiz, Aerea Negrot (like a cross between Ricky from My So-Called Life and pop-singer Pink, but more muscular) has a vocal power and range that seems even more suited to the transcendent quality of the new songs. For the duration of the set, the music was mostly non-stop except for an intermission for band introductions, but aside from that one stop the girls kept the energy up by saying things like “What time is it? It’s time to jump” and other uplifting phrases that resulted in hands in the air and constant movement from my area in the front and as far back as I could see. It was a solid performance that made me feel elated afterward, mostly because I danced my ass off the whole time in that hot room, but also because I felt blissfully content afterward. Good shows can have that effect! It ended up being so hot in that room that it compelled Kim Ann to say that it was “hotter than a bag of dicks” (however hot that might be?!?) after a version of “Blind” in which both Aerea and Shaun traded verses.

After their solid performance, H&LA manages to be more than just another dance group pounding out the 4/4 bangers. Their songs are well crafted with captivating lyrics rampant with themes of love, longing, and regret that ride well on top of the physical groove promulgated by the rhythm sections instrumentation. Contextually, their music is ripe for the physicality of the dancefloor or for a personal headphone journey because the songs are not looped into oblivion (like typical dance music releases) and have solid arrangements that leave the listener wanting to hear more. The new songs that were on display tonight at the Echoplex seem to only solidify that Andrew Butler’s group is a force to be reckoned with and that the new album will only serve to enhance his reputation amongst the fans and DJ’s who crave dance music of this quality.

Going places, the impressive front man, Andrew Aged of Teen Inc. Photo courtesy of Liz Caruso

Aside from Hercules & Love Affair’s headlining set, openers Teen Inc. set the stage for the evening with a ridiculously impressive set that made me feel like I was watching Prince at First Avenue circa ’84, but instead it was L.A. in 2010. These guys first came to my attention a week prior when I reviewed them (for this site) when they opened for Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and Puro Instinct and they intrigued me then, but I mentioned there live act would have been enhanced with a live drummer, as opposed to the drum machine they played too. For their show with H&LA, the drum machine was gone and a live drummer took its place and it seemed to imbue the band with a stronger edge, allowing their musicianship to really shine. Although the band reminds me of Prince, so much is going on with their sound that all I can say is it has to be experienced to be fully explained. They manage to encapsulate the future funk leanings of Dam-Funk and the dreamy haze of Washed Out, but strive beyond either of those comparisons because their songs are far more complex in arrangement. I can only hope a full length is forthcoming sooner rather than later to supplement their only release to date that can be purchased via iTunes or on a 7” inch via their site ( A version of the Sheila E./Prince collaboration “A Love Bizarre” was a highlight and awesome inclusion in a set that got the crowd properly warmed up for the main act. If the chance arises to catch the Teen Inc. experience, don’t miss it because they are an act you don’t want to pass up!