Empire of the Sun 2023
Empire of the Sun | Credit: Jordan Munns

Empire Of The Sun Review – Electro-Pop Brilliance with a Side of Theatre Sports

Empire of the Sun played at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre on Wednesday, 22nd February. David James Young reviews.

Prior to this week, Empire of the Sun leader Luke Steele had only performed at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre once, in 2002, supporting Supergrass at the helm of his previous band, The Sleepy Jackson. Steele’s career has gone through some transformations in the near-21 years between drinks, from enterprising indie rocker to global pop sensation and serial collaborator.

In all, Steele has released six debut albums, including one-offs with Daniel Johns as DREAMS, Jarrad Rogers as H3000, and his folky solo debut, Listen to the Water, from 2022. His most successful project, however, is the one responsible for the two consecutive sell-outs at the Enmore: the electric and eccentric Empire of the Sun.

Empire of the Sun – ‘Standing on the Shore’

It’s been seven years since Steele and project co-founder Nick Littlemore’s last album, and nearly four years since Empire of the Sun’s last run of live shows. And yet, the audience is at fever pitch when the lights go down and the evening’s odyssey begins.

Four dancers in wild costumes make their way onto the stage. Each wields wrap-around lights as they form a square around Steele, who’s in full Empire regalia. He sings the opening lines of ‘Standing On The Shore’ through a pitched-up and distorted microphone. It seems to be a remix at first, but it proves to be a bait and switch – once the original arrangement kicks in, joy and excitement overtake the room.

Steele, through multiple costume changes, straddles the line between theatrical, storytelling performer and fourth-wall breaking frontman. He’s not entirely able to keep from tipping over – for instance, a detour into becoming “The Emperor” and speaking to a god-like higher power on the video screen.

This high-concept approach has long been a part of EOTS shows, but as it drags on, it begins to feel like an amateur theatre gag. Though, it doesn’t eat up too much stage time, and in some instances – such as Steele “duetting” with an android being on the screen – it adds a unique flavour.

Stationed either side of Steele are drummer Olly Peacock and multi-instrumentalist Ian Ball – two-fifths of British indie-rock stayers Gomez. EOTS and Gomez barely exist in the same universe, but Peacock and Ball bring a unique perspective to the arrangements, giving the sound a boost in texture and colouring.

Credit: Jordan Munns

Ball rattles the ceiling with synth-bass vocoder – particularly effective during ‘Delta Bay’ – while Peacock adds precision and flourish to the glistening ‘High & Low’ and a rocking ‘Tiger By My Side’. The two musicians’ expertise injects some substance into the new-look and highly stylised Empire live show, something Steele couldn’t managed alone.

But for all the bells and whistles, the strongest moments are when the music outshines the audio-visual choreography and precipitates a tangibly human connection. During the group’s three biggest hits – ‘We Are The People’, ‘Walking On A Dream’ and closer ‘Alive’ – friends are up on one another’s shoulders, while Steele runs madly across the stage and points at fans who’re singing along to every last word.

Yes, a little dress-up and a light show make for good fun. But without the singular excellence of the songwriting, we’d be all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Further Reading

Luke Steele Announces Debut Solo Album & Releases First Single

Empire Of The Sun Address Cultural Appropriation Issues With Past Outfits

Love Letter To A Record: Gomez’s Ian Ball On The Notwist’s ‘Neon Golden’

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