The cover art for Ice On The Dune still looks like a poster for one of those excellent Star Wars prequels, so Empire Of The Sun certainly haven’t lost their sense of grandeur. The trouble with the band, though, has always been that their grandeur doesn’t manifest itself in harmless delusions that result in avant-garde lyrics and epic sonics.
They instead chase after grandeur intently, probably skipping, whilst dropping opalescent seeds in the dirt that immediately sprout into intensely chromatic, redolent flowers. They want desperately to be grand and splendorous. Luke Steele, the de facto frontman of the duo (notice how he stands protectively in front of Nick Littlemore in every PR shot), described the title track as being “about how the Emperor’s head-dress is stolen by The King Of Shadows, bringing chaos to the world”. Quaint.
The album opens with the Danny Elfman-like orchestral arrangements of Lux, which sounds half like the opening of a Tim Burton film and half like the music played in the menu screen of a medieval role-playing game. This is before DNA makes us feel like the spirit of 2008 is still alive. Luke Steele still sings in his trademark fey, small-child-rubbing-his-eyes-at-the-big-wide-world cadence. Syrupy synths and summery pop dynamics are aglow, reminiscent of the debut record with its catchy shimmer. Steele aptly describes the song as “like lying in front of a log fire with a labrador as a pillow”.
The lead single, Alive, has all the hallmarks of a turn-of-the-decade summer hit. Choruses of children caterwauling in falsetto, vague life-affirmations, angel-hair synths and hooks that bleed into the next hook. It could reasonably bookend the good times had by Carly Rae Jepsen and Owl Eyes on Good Time. During Concert Pitch, choked-up Robert Smith vocals hiccup over a phased, pulsing New Romantic beat and I’ll Be Around channels Saturdays = Youth-era M83 as a kind of ersatz revivalism. Old Flavours is a similar sun-kissed regression to about 4 years ago, with thick, candy-coated synths and that one 808 beat the band seem all too familiar with.
Says Littlemore in an album press release, “Luke left the studio one night and said he was going for dinner. He didn’t come back for two days. When he did, he was a changed man.” Something tells me that shotgun transformations and similar self-indulgences happen to Empire of the Sun all the time. Perhaps one day Steele decided to only communicate in a language he invented himself, giving everyone in the studio a welcome respite from his constantly shouting “More emotion! More emotion!” like an errant film school student. The engineers probably got tired of this, which might explain why the latter tracks on the album are far weaker than the foregoing. The album ends with the awkward Station to Station-Dark Side of the Moon melange of Keep A Watch.
Credit must be given, though; since the music more often hews nearer to more recent Mute Records releases than those of old, it deftly avoids pastiche. It is a very modern record. But for a band that’s all about transformation and change, any kind of remarkable difference from their debut in terms of sonics, concept, production, instrumentation and image is absent. In a way, this is Ice on the Dune‘s biggest credit. It is a far more consistent work than their debut, possessing a command and, more importantly, an understanding of the duo’s strengths while abating some of their weaknesses. With the right choice in singles, Ice on the Dune may have more of an impact than the debut.