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Culture Reviews
Empire of the Sun
By Martin Richardson
If you want to get ahead, as Abe Lincoln famously observed, get a hat. Or, in the case of Empire of the Sun, Aussie electro-popsters, get several. At various points in the show their headgear evoked the court of Flash Gordon's nemesis Ming the Merciless, as front man Luke Steele's elaborate crown was backed up with a high neckline of blue fairy lights, or the imperial might of ancient Rome - the drummer donning an exaggerated take on a centurion's plumed helmet. Throw in a troupe of dancing girls, changing outfits for every number and slipping into anything from vaguely Pharonic gold head-dresses to something resembling a punk Womble, and there's almost enough to distract the crowd from the music and the on-going absence of fellow founder Nick Littlemore, currently unavailable to tour.

Nobody, therefore, could deny that Empire of the Sun fail to put on a show, even if the set - including encores - is all over in barely an hour and the theatrical coup de grace, a glowing-eyed robo giant, somehow falls short of the impact generated by, say, Iron Maiden's Eddie when he lumbers onto stage. Visually it's a compelling sight: part sci-fi, part historical fantasy and even on occasion straying into camp bondage as the session guitarist, himself wearing glittery trousers and a glowing waistcoat over his bare torso, is joined by a dancer who stands at a discreet distance and appears to flay him with furry fronds, while wearing an outfit which calls to mind Bulgakov's Begemot in glittery PVC. Through half-closed eyes, it starts to resemble a compilation of the weirdest off-cuts from Eurovision, re-imagined as the soundtrack to "Star Wars - the rock opera".

The overall effect is a bizarrely retro view of the future, where synth rock sits alongside the aesthetics of Ziggy-era Bowie and the raucous sound of glam rock. The music throbs and pounds, nailed down by a bass drum which hammers relentlessly from start to finish. Choruses are more shout-along than sing-along. Guitar solos favour big riffs and thrusting poses over frantic fretwork. At the end of the show, a guitar is ritualistic slammed into oblivion against the floor: it feels like a stagey gesture. Noticeably, the few slightly lighter numbers - especially the emblematic We Are The People - are the ones which get the strongest reaction from the crowd, perhaps because they offer a rare and precious respite for ears under strain. The rest quickly becomes empty bombast, not greatly helped by a mix which all but abandons the vocals beneath a mass of indistinct noise. In particular the spoken interludes between songs get utterly lost, rendering the concept elusive between scattered phrases about "finding the path to the Empire". On occasion something interesting emerges - usually a synth break with its roots in the early 80s, but with better technology behind it - but this is all too infrequent.

For the surprisingly large crowd of fans who turned up at Arena the show was a valuable chance to hear their heroes in action, and the band did not disappoint. Welding a theatrical concept to the show - however opaque it was rendered by the lack of audible lyrics - removed the need for much interaction with the crowd. Instead it was the razzle-dazzle of the stage show which lingered in the memory: for the unconverted this was not a show to provoke a rush to the record stores.

04.08.11
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