On their new album Visitor, the Philly noise-pop band Empath make the leap from homemade, self-recorded music to making a record with a real producer in a real studio.
It’s a tricky maneuver for any small-but-getting-bigger band, but especially for one like Empath, a quartet with rock-solid DIY cred whose last album—2019’s Active Listening: Night on Earth—offers an endlessly charming blend of lo-fi fuzz, warped synths, punk spirit and pretty melodies. It doesn’t sound fussed over, by any means, but it does seem like a precarious sonic balance, where a significant tweak to the formula could throw off the group’s uncommon alchemy.
Enter Jake Portrait, member of Unknown Mortal Orchestra and producer of Visitor. He’s the first person to record Empath in a “formal” studio, according to the band, and he handles the responsibility with skill and understanding, scrubbing away some (but not all) of the noise while retaining the pop.
As a result, listening to Visitor is like looking at Empath through a magnifying glass wiped free of all but its most stubborn smudges, which means you get to hear their most distinctive qualities more clearly. The most noticeable of these are Catherine Elicson’s vocals, which are farther forward in the mix than on Active Listening, and thus a more prominent melodic element in songs like “Born 100 Times,” a two-chord cuddle-punk banger that ramps up the chaos in its second half. “A chill down your spine when you realize you’ve been left behind,” Elicson sings as the tune wobbles around her. “You’re here till the moment’s passed, only alone by contrast.” Later, in “House + Universe”—one of the album’s catchiest tracks—she returns to the topic of loneliness, or at least FOMO:
You hear you’re always missing out on something
Hearts on fire in the enormous space around you
Somewhere unaware you will lie
And think I don’t wanna hide or feel unknown
Physical and emotional space is a recurring theme on Visitor, and Elicson seems locked in a constant effort to close the gap between people or points. In the album’s fidgety closing track, “Paradise,” paradise is “really far away,” but she knows she’s going to get there. In “Diamond Eyelids,” she sings of proximity, distance and love while the band wheeze and shimmer like a gentle robot. And the rhythmically restless “Elvis Comeback Special” kicks off with a line that seems to neatly summarize Elicson’s headspace here: “I lean in close to not feel lonely,” she sings, “then I wonder why I feel surrounded.”
It is no coincidence, perhaps, that open space is at a premium in Empath’s music. This is a band that fills every nook and cranny of their songs, often in a frenetic way, almost as if the different instruments are competing for air. This sounds like it should be disastrous, but Empath make it work, and work well. Where other bands aim for a seamless presentation, Empath thrive when their seams are showing.
Elicson’s guitar is an important component of the group’s sound, of course, but what jumps out of Empath’s songs are Garrett Koloski’s drumming—hyperactive and packed with zigzags—and the synth and keyboard parts played by Jem Shanahan and Randall Coon. Along with Elicson’s vocals, their blips, bloops, squiggles and sproings bring an airiness and approachability to Empath that’s as dependable as it is peculiar.
In fact, Empath’s mix of melody and noise is so effective, it’s not hard at all to squint a little bit at Visitor and see the potential for some sort of breakthrough success for this band. Stranger things have happened! But not much stranger.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.