The Music Sleuth: Empathy Test – ‘Monsters’ (2020) Reviewed

Music reviews are not common for us here at TMS, but we were given the opportunity to review British genre-bending group Empathy Test’s album, Monsters, ahead of release and we are excited to talk about it. The eponymous first single from the album is released today, and the record is available for preorder before its release date of 22 May via the artist Bandcamp page.  Empathy Test funded the creation of this record via support from an Indiegogo campaign that managed to be fully funded – and then some – before a few days had even gone by. This music resonates, and there are so many reasons why.

It’s difficult to categorize Empathy Test’s sound in neat genre terms – it’s singer-songwriter focused, but driven by synths rather than guitars, and its pop sensibilities are a mixture of the classic and the modern. Centering often on darker themes, but not quite darkwave, electronically minded but not completely pop, they straddle many lines that don’t tidily converge, which makes Empathy Test definitely unique. The heart of the group is its vocalist, Isaac Howlett, and Adam Relf, who handles its key production. The tracks on Monsters were collaborative efforts between the pair, and while sonically it is a departure from their earlier works, in many ways it carries their hallmark partnership at its core.

But there is so much to unpack, between this fundamental essence of Howlett and Relf’s compositions and the embellishment of live drums provided by Christina “Chrisy” Lopez and the warm currents of Oliver Marson’s deft keyboard work. Monsters is a new animal for Empathy Test, indeed, and it awakens with a carnivorous brilliance.

Title track “Monsters” tears the curtain open, a lavishly produced anthem that feels perfect for our current world climate, the constrictions of fear facing down the liberations of love – a twisting picture of existential anxiety, leading into an album rife with pockets of joy and hope within a heart that opens itself, an unclenching fist, trying change on for size. Strangely meta, as it speaks both to this newer, more robust sound with Lopez and Marson’s addition to the mix, as well as to the uncertainty and ominous foreboding that seems to permeate life in the now.

The “monsters” are not so much personified demons, this album suggests, as they are living shadows expressed in the intense feelings of loneliness and regret, desperation and nothingness that pierce the spirit and breed a sense that nothing one does is quite good enough. These are songs about the fight between a desire to want things and the struggle to believe one deserves them. The terror of rejection, the nagging voices of abandonment and past mistakes, all combine to create a somber backdrop – and yet, there is so much beauty and so many shimmering threads of hope woven throughout. Howlett’s vocals express the gamut of the emotional rainbow, and the amalgamation of moods and timbres are echoed in his instrumental companions.

The dynamism of powerhouse drummer Lopez drives a hard spine that supports the warm lumen of Empathy Test, the layers of sinew and muscle from Marson’s keys over the percussive bones, evoking the longing, lambent hot-and-cold of Howlett’s voice. Altogether, the body of sound is a blacklight beacon of celebration and despondency, luminous against the darkness to which it is a soundtrack. One connects to this record through the sheer force of its feeling, and as we all go through this particular moment in history, trying to survive together whilst utterly apart and in isolation, we are easy prey for the very “monsters” it reflects.

The twin spires of pain and promise are the album’s peaks, “Stop” and “Love Moves”, the first a powerful lament of solitary melancholy, the other a mellifluous flight of courage and faith in better endings. “Incubation Song”, by contrast to “Stop”, speaks to a different kind of consumption, the total giving of oneself over to ecstasy and beauty, wrapped in layers of warmth and power, this track is a love letter to the feeling itself. “Fear of Disappearing” speaks directly to the separateness and ephemeral nature of life itself, questioning redundancy and whether any effort one makes is truly important….if one creates and no one connects, does it still make a sound? Regret oozes from “Skin”, even as it stands up to the idea that eventually, mourning ends and people learn to move forward – even when they never quite let go. Laced throughout this record are testaments to the tragic pathos and joyful wonder it is to be a human being, and all ordinariness in between, its patchwork sewn together with soft, but bloodied, paws.

Love is greater than fear. Song breaks silence. Panic and pestilence may roar, but Empathy Test is here to remind us that we can roar back. Our dragons are internal creatures, and we cannot so much slay them as we can learn to understand how and upon what they feed. Passion in music like this is a rare gift, a sword of flames placed in the hands of every spirit it touches, any warrior soul who wants to live to rise above its Monsters.

--Dana Culling