Empire Easy Life / Enough of the Same 7″

EMPIRE and their sole LP Expensive Sound (the reissue of which was reviewed recently here) has always been more famous for who it inspired than for the music itself. Like many, I heard about it as one of the key inspirations to the fabled era of Washington DC’s Revolution Summer scene. As the legend goes, the record came out in the UK, the label immediately folded soon after, and with no way to promote it, the album and band faded into obscurity. Somehow, copies made their way to the well-curated import bins of famed DC area record store Yesterday and Today and into the hands of members of EMBRACE and GRAY MATTER (among others), inspiring a more melodic and rhythmically diverse path out of DC hardcore. But even divorced from the influence they’ve had, EMPIRE’s music deserves more attention for taking on the gloomier, doomier parts of post-punk combined with the hook-injected power pop punk they had perfected in their previous band GENERATION X (a band that still seems overlooked as far as first-wave British punk groups go). Bob Derwood Andrews’ carefully crafted melodic guitar lines are the guiding star of the EMPIRE sound—spacious and echoing riffs, but also bristling with fiery solo fretwork. Forced to the mic out of necessity, and lacking any percentage of the rock’n’roll frontman genes that GEN X-er Billy Idol held in his curled lip, Bob Andrews’ vocals instead have a shy choir boy charm, singing simply and observationally about the world and his feelings towards it, letting his guitar give the songs their anthemic punch. The rhythm section of fellow GEN X alum Mark Laff on drums and enlisted bassist Simon Bernal keep a consistent bedrock under Andrews, occasionally dropping into sparse, gray sky grooves but mostly bringing a high-energy minimalist uplift to the songs. This single, containing two songs meant for the unreleased follow-up to Expensive Sound, are perfect specimens of the EMPIRE sound. “Easy Life” starts off with a rainy day descending riff and Andrews examining the trappings of dull adulthood, before exploding into a huge, ascending rock chorus. This song and the B-side “Enough of the Same” are full of the loud/quiet dynamics that would be hallmarks of alternative/indie rock/what-have-you in years to come. Though it took 40 years and a chance detour through the import bins of Washington DC, EMPIRE could finally be getting their due and an audience to appreciate them.

Empire Expensive Sound LP reissue

When commercial success and artistic integrity presented a fork in the road, drummer Mark Laff and guitarist Bob Derwood Andrews left the then (from the label’s point of view) doddering ranks of GENERATION X to form the more alternative-flavored EMPIRE. This LP is a reissue of their debut from 1981, and while the band never saw the chart-ranking success of the Billy Idol-fronted GEN X, they made a hell of a record here. Allegedly inspired by JOY DIVISION, this group wanders a line between late ’70s garage punk with catchy hooks and poppy lyrics like the VIBRATORS, to sparse, guitar-heavy tracks that have the ambience of JOY DIVISION, but sound more like predecessors to FUGAZI or SONIC YOUTH with screaming feedback, pinch harmonics, and heavy drums. Just take the instrumental opener “Empire” that is a long, beautifully sad guitar riff, followed by “Hot Seat” (originally off their self-titled 7” from the same year) that is all jangly “clap the tambourine” power pop. That said, the lyrics on “Hot Seat” are divorced from the songs’ otherwise pop styling; they sing “Sitting here in my armchair / Sitting here without a care / All I have to do is stare / I wonder how long will I live,” an inherently punk apathy. While a lot of this sounds like any UK outfit of its time, the integral nature of Andrews’ guitar really makes this album worth a listen.