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10 out of 10
John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is today one most coveted guitarists of his time, yet for almost the entirety of his varied career he has led a double life as a solo artist, playing and recording his own music, displaying his wide prowess as a song writer, vocalist and multi instrumentalist, while demonstrating his wide musical influences from Hendrix to the Wu Tang Clan. 'The Empyrean' is Frusciante's twelfth release(10 albums, 2 EP's) ,having being released worldwide on January 20, 2009 through Record Collection, an independently owned label that was formerly part of the Warner Music Group.
The record in question was reputedly recorded between December 2006 and March 2008, and is intended to be a concept album of sorts. As a reaction to the virtuoso 'guitar god' excess of the RHCP's 'Stadium Arcadium' Frusciante now investigates a more psychedelic sphere, moving away from the Hard Rock sound he exhibited on tracks like 'Dani Calfornia' and 'Ready Made', instead returning to his enduring interest in more textured sounds. Frusciante claims the word Empyrean means "the highest point in heaven", yet rather than having any direct religious connotations he stated,
"It is meant more as a symbol for something that is out of grasp, but there's something that makes us reach for them, just as human beings, whether it's on an instrument or anything else."
On the record Frusciante handles the vocals duties, guitars, bass, keyboards, piano and synthesizers, with long time collaborator Josh Klinghoffer playing keyboards and drums and his RHCP band mate Flea playing bass on a number of tracks. Indie Godfather Johnny Marr (of The Smiths whose influence is highly prevalent on Frusciante's previous work with the RHCP and solo) plays on two of the tracks, reputedly laying down his parts in a single night that he had off from touring with Modest Mouse (another influence on Frusciante's output over the past few years).
Frusciante claims he experimented with his singing on this release, attempting to create a different character for each song. Meanwhile the recording took place at Frusciante's Hollywood home, giving a warm and comfortable sound: at the beginning and end of each track you can hear Frusciante and friends shuffling around, tape machines clicking off and so forth, giving a intimacy to the recording, like you are sitting in the room with them as they records the songs. Frusciante also took care of the mixing on this record in order to not lose another point of expression in the record making process, experimenting extensively with the analogue tape manipulation and treatment using reverbs and delay.
The opening track "Before The Beginning" clocks in at almost 10 minutes, starting with gentle strumming and dubby ghost like reverb through which the metronymic drums emerge. It sounds similar to "Out on the weekend", the opening track of Neil Young's 'Harvest', until soaring David Gilmore like guitar solo joins the fray, displaying Frusciante's signature expressive string bending. The track is a basic tour de force for Frusciante's howling guitar and at first it may appear to be pure ego trip, a self indulgence juggernaut of soloing. Yet when placed within the context of the record as a whole it is apparent that it is in fact gently setting the intergalactic sonic landscape that Frusciante conjures through the rest of the album. The following track "Song to the Siren" is originally from Tim Buckley’s 1970 album 'Starsailor' and though placing a cover song on a concept record sounds like a risky venture it works well. It begins with haunting keyboards and Frusciante's voice echoing out of a small space (like the bow of a little fishing boat?) the story following an oceanic theme, inviting the unseen subject to swim over, while android seagulls squawk overhead.
"Unreachable" sounds like a piece from Frusciante's 'Shadows Collide with People' (2004), thumping good time Pop Rock with rich melodies and good hooks. Frusciante's soaring vocals retain but are sent through a battery of vocoders, mingling with glistening synth, reverb and chorus, wrapping around Flea's ever present bass. It's an emotional exorcism that rises and falls. The breakdown to sparse drums is soon joined by Hendrixesque lead guitar that howls out of the sky from all directions, backwards echoed, a declaration of cosmically twisted intent, going from the analogue psychedelic to the digital, as if the sail boat is turning into a paisley space cruiser.
"God" starts as dream pop along the lines of French Electro Pop duo Air or ex-Sneaker Pimp Kelli Ali, but the track soon kicks into a brooding rhythm of kick drum and electric piano leading into a maelstrom of synth and digital processors, the star ship sail boat going into hyperspace, edging out on gentle violin. "Dark/Light" carries on where the previous track left off with Frusciante's voice searing out of an ion storm over a calm piano line leading into a drum machine and organ waltz of falsetto vocals, a cruise into the calm of space with the billions of twinkling of stars in the back ground while the busy, almost dubby, bass adds volumes of colour as it riffs away over the "Bohemian Rhapsody" like chorus of "ah's". On "Heaven" Frusciante's voice is a Bee Geesque falsetto backed by meek guitar, tough bass and whirling organ, the drums picking it up, holding a post card like snatch of Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" with the organs and late night jazz club beats. Bitter sweet synths shatter like glass, as the vessel skirts through the vapours swirling around a gas giant.
"Enough of Me" is a broken carousel of synth like a graveyard of broken satellites; solar panels reflect the sun's orange glow, the crashing drums and pounding bass fall away as quickly as they appear. The track offers an unsettling sound yet it is triumphant and optimistic, picking up into an almost Hendrix like fast paced shuffled of broken guitar sounds, the dying malfunctioning satellites relaying half forgotten and confused messages into the dead of space.
"Central" is another piano driven ballad with Johnny Marr's acoustic guitar backing Frusciante's soaring yells as the pace picks up to a high speed run through an asteroid belt, tortured guitars moaning into the background, dropping down and building up again to epic proportions, searing solos and tearing distorted rhythms, wailing synths sending messages across the universe before tripping in to a choir of lead guitar and bass drowning Frusciante's voice into near obscurity, finally ending on a gentle wind down as the ship clears the asteroid belt.In "One More of Me" Frusciante's voice is a deep baritone echoing out into the void, backed by moaning violin, the eulogy to a dying star as the ship passes by. Frusciante's voice steps into a piecing shriek as the strings work away and the ship fades away into the distance leaving the star to collapse upon its self."After the Ending" is a space walk with a helmet filled with voices drenched in reverb and reversed echo, like the spirits of a hundred dead space jockeys all trying to tell their stories at once. Floating through the void of the endless night peppered with a hundred billion planets, slowly drifting towards the third stone from the sun, not knowing what to find there or what to expect, only knowing the journey is over.
'The Empyrean' is a raw departure from Frusciante's previous work, yet still exhibited his sensibility for catchy melodies and deep layers. As a result 'The Empyrean' is not much of the same, not mere left over riffs from the last Red Hot Chili Peppers record, but an evolution in Frusciante's music. The guitarist's virtuosity is ever present but sparsely used with the songs, not the guitarist's ego, coming first. Instead the brand of virtuosity that is exhibited is more towards strong song writing, well thought out arrangements and meticulous mixing. Devoted RHCP fans will revel in the familiar guitar work yet also be captivated by the whole other side to Frusciante, while those who are less than fond of the Chili's will be surprised by the experimentalism of the record. Those who are of no opinion either way will simply discover a strong and deep piece of work with which to fall asleep to and conjure fantastic and wild dreams or else wake up to with a dose of equalizing psychedelic spiritualism.
1. Before the Beginning
2. Song to the Siren
7. Enough of Me
9. One More of Me
10. After the Ending