Aside from a digital-only single released in the fall of 2019 and an extended instrumental jam made available in the summer of 2020, the Philadelphia freak pop quartet Empath has been quiet, a word rarely associated with the group. Empath’s excellent debut full-length, Active Listening: Night on Earth, was well-received by critics and fans alike. Putting a considerable amount of time between Active Listening and their follow-up, Visitor, may have led some to suspect the core four underwent lineup and stylistic changes during the hiatus. This, however, is not the case. Singer/guitarist Catherine Elicson, drummer Garret Koloski, and keyboardists Emily Shanahan and Randall Coon are all present on Visitor, as are Empath’s bass-free sonic musings that successfully blend the noisy experimentalism and clamorous dream pop that made their debut so enjoyable.
The first half of Visitor is fairly straightforward. The warped, shoegaze-inspired “Genius of Evil” opens things smartly with Elicson’s idiosyncratic croon mixed just below the instruments in order that listeners are encouraged to turn up the volume. “Born 100 Times” ratchets up the madness, doubling the tempo of its predecessor and providing Koloski with ample space to go absolutely apeshit (the first of many times he’ll do this) on his drumkit in the most delightful way. Visitor’s premier single, “Diamond Eyelids”, arrives third in the sequence and manages to combine the stomping groove of Visitor’s opener during the verses while revisiting the midpoint madness of the song previous. Elicson’s lyrics are grounded during the track’s first verse as she describes finding a friend from across the country asleep on her couch. As we move toward the song’s chaotic heart, Catherine’s words return to a more stream of consciousness style as she sings, “History comes back to you in shards, that I reach out to touch, while diamonds form from your eyelids.”
“Passing Stranger” kicks off Visitor’s second third and provides the album’s most immediately accessible moment. Amidst a guitar and keyboards that swirl dizzyingly through, Elicson’s vocals here are more composed as she sings with a swaggering style not unlike any one of the goddesses that inhabited 1980s FM rock radio. In the song’s last thirty seconds, we’re dropped into a brief moment of sonic weirdness before the ephemeral, punky “Corner of Surprise” yanks us out. The oddly titled “Elvis Comeback Special” includes some perky keyboards that bring to mind the steel drums from Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville”. For as strange a comparison as that may sound, the song works remarkably well.
Empath wait until Visitor’s final third before diving headlong into one of their signature extended experimental moments. This begins during the last fifteen seconds of “80s” and carries through the entirety of “V”. Those who make it all the way past the five-plus minutes of echoey spaciness are rewarded with the album’s last two songs, “Bell” and “Paradise”, which manage to tie a strong ending onto Visitor, the latter of these includes some dexterous, speedy lead guitar work from Elicson in addition to a saxophone solo that, surprisingly, doesn’t sound out of place.
Since their inception, Empath have distinguished themselves by forging a unique style and sound. This can, and probably should, be attributed largely to the band’s untraditional lineup, but it’s also not unfair to say that Catherine Elicson’s individualistic lyrics and vocals contribute handily to the group’s successful formula. Good things take time. Although it’s been almost three years between proper studio albums, with this latest release, Empath manage to add eleven more solid tracks to their already impressive, and highly original, catalog. Visitor is a winner that will reward listeners looking for something exciting and different.