If you've ever wondered what it might sound like if Cirque du Soleil engineered an electro-house concert, listening to Empire of the Suns' sophomore album Ice On the Dune might be a good place to start. The band broke onto the scene in 2008, combining the lyrical bars of alternative/indie-rock with the upbeat, thumping house beats of 80s origin. While Empires' first album Walking On a Dream received mixed reviews, it was powered by several catchy hits such as title track "Walking On a Dream", "Half Mast", and "We Are the People". Ice On the Dune certainly does not come equipped with the contagious tracks that its predecessor contains, but it doesn't include any of the nonsensical tracks either (listen to "Swordfish Hotkiss Night" off their first album). All in all, Ice On the Dune is far more well-rounded and tolerable from start to finish.
Empire of the Sun is composed of a rather unlikely pairing. Luke Steele, of alternative rock band The Sleepy Jackson, and Nick Littlemore, of electronic act Pnau, met in 2000 and began to collaborate on songs. Years later (and under slight supervision of Sir Elton John) the two artists decided to begin a new project, which would eventually become Empire of the Sun. If you explore deeper into the cuts of both The Sleepy Jackson and Pnau, one can easily understand how the sound of Empire came to be. Steele's voice sounds to be a clash of The Cure's Robert Smith and MGMTs Andrew VanWyngarden; alternative and electro embodied in one. And in the chorus of "Celebration", Steele strangely projects a feminine pitch that creates an incredibly infectious hook over the fist-pumping beat supplied by Littlemore. Ice On the Dune paints more of an image as to what direction the group is heading. That direction appears to be moving towards the club scene, which was made evident in several tracks. Additionally, there is a more emotional, less poppy sound to the group as well, which can be traced back to their alternative roots.
The album's title track, "Ice On the Dune", displays both alternative and dance roots being effectively meshed. The lyrical content and tone is deep and sorrowful ("Secret underground / Changed the way I see / I lost the child inside / He ran away from me"), but at the same time, the beat provides a lift that conjures feelings of hope. What creates the theatric Cirque du Soleil sound present in much of their music (Littlemore, in fact, has written music specifically for Cirque du Soleil) can be attributed to the production of the album as well as its presentation. The introductory track, "Lux", begins very fantastically and almost over-the-top. The song contains no lyrics and seems to be placed at the front in order to summon a mystifying image and feel that you may have encountered the first time you played Zelda on Nintendo. And if you've ever seen the duo in concert, you already know that they have a taste for the theatrics (Steele dresses like a Japanese sun-god accompanied by other faceless minions on stage). Steele also writes his songs with many psychedelic motifs.
Their latest product is surely coming to fruition following the rocky conclusion of their first album. Their insanely ridiculous on-stage image and unique fusion of synth-pop sounds have earned them a fan-base that seems to be snowballing, especially with the resurgence of house and 80s power-pop. And the fact that they are capabale tracks such as "Keep a Watch", a slower and less synthesized song, assures that they are not simply a one-trick pony. Ice On the Dune is ultimately a step in the right direction.