Philadelphia noise-rockers Empath sound like they’re barely holding things together on their debut full-length, Active Listening: Night on Earth, and that’s exactly the charm. The bass-less quartet, comprised of singer/guitarist Catherine Elicson, drummer Garret Koloski, and keyboardists Emily Shanahan and Randall Coon, bring their unique, psych-tinged ruckus to nine tracks that wind their way through genres as disparate as disco, punk, pop, and ambient.
Empath take the “Night on Earth” part of their record’s title literally, starting things off with the sound of crickets just before a pounding disco synth enters and Elicson’s delightfully warped vocals blend seamlessly with a ghostly, Theremin-like sustained note. Elicson’s favorite subjects are loneliness, alienation, and spirituality. “I want to be faithful, but not rid of myself, and who knew that would be so terrifying?” She sings conclusively on “Soft Shape”. Empath’s lyrics are nearly always introspective and thoughtful, rarely is there any indication they were written in the Information Age.
The excellent, hooky back-to-back singles, “Hanging Out of Cars” and “Roses That Cry”, help offset the band’s noisiness by delivering catchy melodies and, in the case of “Roses That Cry”, an earworm of a chorus that evokes images of a tree falling on a car and a trip to the beach. Active Listening’s smart track sequencing continues with the pairing of the similarly themed “Rowing” and the short “Heaven”, two songs that alternately deal with rowing toward God and wanting to get to Heaven.
After the glorious bash and crash chaos that largely comprises the first two thirds of Active Listening, the band takes an extended breather on the instrumental “IV”. The night sounds heard at the album’s opening return here as owls, birds, and crickets intermingle with shimmering synths and light, playful arpeggios. It’s an unexpectedly tranquil moment amidst the bedlam and serves as a kind of ear reset before the record marches confidently into its final moments. Active Listening’s last song, “Rodeo Fever”, is a perfect closer that manages to tie the entire package together beautifully. Here, Elicson gives every bit of herself vocally as she cries “I want to dream!” over and over as Koloski’s wild, emphatic drumming drives the whole thing home.
Active Listening: Night on Earth is a stunning debut. There’s a fine art to creating music that sounds simultaneously fragile and unbreakable. Empath’s gorgeous disorder is both rare and enviable.