EP: Empathy Test – ‘By My Side’

Whilst growing up, the 80s wasn’t exactly thought of as the most artistically inspiring of decades. Whilst guitar bands battled with first-time-round boy bands for centre stage on Top Of The Pops, the days of stacks of synths, electronic drums and shoulder pads seemed culturally barren.

But as the continuing cycle of musical genres has swung around again, and we have become increasingly obsessed with nostalgia, the never-ending wave of neo-80s cultural re-appropriation seems only to gather pace.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some brilliant and exciting creativity being built on this bedrock of 80s fetishism, but as we reach a threshold for nostalgia, both culturally and politically, standing out amongst the plethora of pulsing synths, reverb drenched claps and pink and blue neon is no easy task.

It is within this world of cinematic references and in-the-box laptop music that London duo, Empathy Test, have set their stall out. On the back of critically acclaimed double single ‘Demons / Seeing Stars’, their latest EP By My Side features two new tracks and two remixes which build on the foundations of previous material.

The titular opening track chimes into life, with glitchy drums and icy synths framing Isaac Howlett’s considered vocals against a stark but serene backdrop. Echoes of Purity Ring are evident in the faltering beats and wash of crisp synth pads as the track pits longing against obsession in a sonic landscape that mirrors the loneliness of the lyricism.

‘Vampire Town’ opens with more intent; more drive in the rhythm and a purring bass line instantly get the head moving. Emotive synth arpeggios lift the chorus up and the vocal hook is catchy, but not sing-along. Described as the emotional light at the end of the tunnel, it’s upbeat, but still heavily melancholic. ‘Vampire Town’ would fit comfortably on the soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which one senses might be exactly where the band would like to be.

The remixes on the EP have some nice moments, though without differing significantly from the original tracks. And, if you’re a CHVRCHES fan, the Papertwin remix of ‘Vampire Town’ will likely be of interest.

In all, the EP has some strong moments – there is a lot to love sonically, and the intent is interesting. Although emotionally it may not completely draw you in – you have to search for the feeling – maybe that is the point: it’s a bit of an ’empathy test’.

By My Side is out now.


Jamie McNicholas