It’s been just about a year since I first heard of Empires. I was at the bus stop waiting to go to work, flipping through the pages of the Red Eye-a mostly useless, but sometimes entertaining offshoot of the Chicago Tribune. Inside was a story about a local Chicago band that had made it to the final four in Rolling Stone’s “Choose The Cover” contest. The Sheepdogs were the eventual winner of this contest, based on fan voting. I thought it was odd that I had never heard of Empires before, and somehow I never really heard about them after reading the article. It’s as though the band existed only in that moment and then disappeared. That wasn’t the case of course, they were just laying low trying to finish their new record that came out yesterday.
For whatever reason I never followed up on the Red Eye piece, so until a few days ago I really had no idea what Empires sounded like. As I was browsing through Bandcamp I came upon a single that they put out called “We Lost Magic.” I believe it was the first single for the new album, and I thought it was pretty tasty. It sounded like a mix of The Killers and Born In The USA-era Springsteen. The guitars remain pretty restrained and the vocal performance by Sean Van Vleet is really what sells the number. It has a familiar feel to it, which helps draw you in. The fact that it’s really catchy will bring you back over and over.
The first thing I noticed in my initial spin of Garage Hymns is that Empires isn’t an easy band to pin down. On one song they’ll be inciting a riot with their blazing guitars and raging drums, and on another they’re pop-friendly, even a little dance-y. This is good and bad. On the one hand I like that they go after a bunch of different genres and attack them all with gusto. On the other, a little consistency could go a long way. When I listen to an album, I like to know that these songs were all meant to go together. For the majority of this collection, I think they did a pretty good job. Still, there are a couple songs I would either cut, or at least switch the order around.
They come out blasting on all cylinders with “Can’t Steal Your Heart Away,” and “Keep It Steady.” Garage Hymns really takes off for me on the third track “Hell’s Heroes.” It maintains that aggressive power of the first two, but adds a little bit of funky swagger. The band lists two guitarists, so I’m not real sure who to credit here, but either Tom Conrad or Max Steger has some great licks on this one.
The tempo slows down a bit for “Night Is Young.” This was the song that kicked off the new album’s recording process (per their site), so I understand it’s sentimental importance. However, with the three before and the one following being all pretty much in the same vein of uptempo rock, the album might play better if “Runaway” had switched places and “Night Is Young” could be paired with “Shame,” which has the same kind of feel as “Night.” I’m not one to second guess tracklisting, because I know how much time a lot of bands put into it. For me, I think this would work better.
The last few songs on the album are all pretty strong, with a little blues influence coming in and out. “We Lost Magic” remains the standout in my mind. With one minor nitpick, I think the album is a great sophmore effort, and I look forward to hearing the band grow now that I’ve had the chance to listen to them. Lyrically I think they have some work to do, but the final verse of the album, on the song “Lord Have Mercy,” is pretty great.
Time doesn’t make me scared at all
It only makes me think I better jump not fall
Its time for me to sacrifice
I wanna smile for the problem child in god
Garage Hymns is available now, with a bunch of different options for buying. The best option is through their Bandcamp page, where you can try out all the songs before you purchase them. Empires has a bunch of tour dates up, including two stops in Chicago (Craft Beer Fest June 30th, Lollapalooza), as well as a show at Summerfest in Milwaukee. Nothing is planned for the west coast at this time, but stay tuned to their website and Facebook page for updates.