Following up a beloved debut album can be tricky. No one wants to be known for hitting the dreaded (yet unsubstantiated) ‘sophomore slump’. Often bands will try something new, and that can either be well received or shunned entirely. They can add new members, get rid of old ones, change out instruments, or ask their drummer to sing instead. For Philadelphia noise-pop quartet Empath, fine tuning what worked the first time was all that was necessary.
With Unknown Mortal Orchestra bassist Jake Portrait employed as their first producer in their first proper studio recording session, Empath’s Visitor is the stunning follow-up most young bands only dream of creating. Portrait’s no stranger to stylistic evolution; UMO rarely sounds the same from album to album, so his finishing touches here are precisely what Empath needed to get a bigger and ultimately better sound. It doesn’t alter their genetics, but does allow them to evolve in ways that some noise pop bands have never explored.
Active Listening: Night on Earth was a wonderful debut album chock full of mosh-worthy bangers like “Hanging Out of Cars” and “Roses that Cry”. It had brisk and catchy pop songs embedded in noise and spliced with bird tweets and psychedelics. Visitor tightens its grip more, comprising mostly short, concise full-throttled sonic wailers.
This was evident immediately when first single “Born 100 Times” dropped last year, and it’s turned out to be a signifier of what we experience across the whole record. It’s a towing line to grander things, and Empath work studiously to lure us in. Lead guitarist and vocalist Catherine Elicson shines with purity on the track’s most insular lyrics “You learned at an early age, oh / to celebrate your heartache, oh / And it’s been on your mind / But it’s not quite right, yeah.” Three years removed from their debut, it’s obvious she’s spent quite a bit of time looking inward.
As a result, Visitor’s other fuzzed-out rockers are left to evolve in their own space. Whereas Active Listening over-used ambient outros, here the band dedicates a single song to their instrumental tendencies via the near five-minute “V”. The rest of the record is dedicated to punchy anthems that twirl endlessly and disappear inside of two or three minutes.
“80s” is the mosh-pit thriller drummer Garrett Koloski has likely pined for since his previous band, the furious Perfect Pussy, disbanded in 2016. There’s an adrenaline-fueled freak out in “Corner of Surprise” that lasts a brief minute, the band launching hyper-pop vocals and speed playing before abruptly trailing off into the ethereal “House + Universe”. “Passing Stranger” dispenses jangle-pop like gumballs into the hands of kids, and Elicson’s more profound vocals are a shining example of how Empath is growing.
Every once in awhile there’s a cat purring, or possibly a nightingale singing, but even at their leanest Empath are still condensing various large sounds into consumable portions. It’s these little nuances that elevate Visitor. It isn’t necessarily an improvement over Active Listening – that record was just as exhilarating – instead, it simply finds Empath in refinement mode, exploring alternate paths to greatness and succeeding at every turn. It’s energetic, it’s bright, loud, and above all else, a ton of fun.
The band was at one time heralded as soothsayers because their sound was just so damn intuitive to a wide range of people’s feelings, and that feedback was integrated into Visitor. This is accomplished through their peculiar choice in samples, which only adds luster to each song – like a new age Animal Collective, only punkier. To listen to Visitor is to imagine sitting on a park bench in a dilapidated post-apocalyptic Times Square overgrown with greenery and just soaking in the sounds of nature without any pollution or man-made noise. It promotes a degree of serenity within chaos that’s hard to come by lately.