It’s probably unfair to expect brilliance from an artist every single time he or she releases something, but after his 6-album run that included the epic ‘Shadows Collide With People’ and the haunting ‘Sphere In The Heart Of Silence’, it’s fair to say that I had huge expectations for ‘The Empyrean’. My hopes were marred after reading Frusciante’s own explanation of the ‘concept’ behind the album, as concept albums often tread the thin line between genius and pretentious, but still, I was determined that this album would blow my mind.
The soft and warm chords and the exquisite guitar work of the soaring opening track ‘Before the Beginning’ cannot disappoint. As an instrumental completely focused on Frusciante’s guitar, 9 minutes might seem a bit lengthy, but amazingly the song never overstays its welcome, and the waves of guitar just keep coming and coming and never dull. After such a fantastic song, things looked promising. The following song, a cover of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’ is a worthy follow-up; the beautifully subdued piano chords accompany a surprisingly good vocal performance from Frusciante, with twangy guitar (?) bouncing from speaker to speaker in the background adding to the affectionate atmosphere the album gives out thus far. It would take something spectacular to follow up the flawless opening duo, and unfortunately we are given mediocrity instead. ‘Unreachable’ begins with John’s fairly unconvincing singing and leads into what is essentially quite a dull and unimposing song. It’s also at this point I picked up the first seedlings of pretention, with lines like ‘Reach into the darkness for what you can find, travel great distances in your mind’ – which could be copied and pasted straight from a ‘Yes’ b-side. However, the track does pick up with a trademark wa-wa guitar solo, slowed down and taking centre stage, which blooms into a refrain with gorgeous instrumentation. So after a brief dip in quality, Frusciante brings it straight back, only to let the listener down again with ‘God’, which again starts with some strangely annoying vocals (it seems Frusciante has found some misplaced confidence in his just-bearable voice) and leads into a lacklustre piano riff. He takes on the persona of God for this song, telling his faithful collective ‘You blaspheme my name, but I still love you’...I can’t help but be sceptical. This track is thankfully short and probably not as bad as I just made it sound; it’s a masterpiece compared to the next track, the flabby and unappetising ‘Dark/Light’. Again, it begins with Frusciante’s warble alongside a pleasant piano progression... nothing different from what the album has already thrown out . Then suddenly, exactly two minutes and forty-four seconds in... What the hell just happened!? Where did Frusciante go and why am I suddenly listening to 6 year old child doing a poor impression of Thom Yorke? I think I actually died a little inside when I heard the cheesy hip-hop drum beat combined with the worst vocals Frusciante has ever recorded (listen to ‘Enter a Uh’ to truly feel the extremity of that statement) wailing ‘Will we ever get together?’ What ensues over the following 5 minutes is repetitive choir-esque vocals just regurgitated into your probably now slumped head over and over and over and over and over again, only mildly improved by an awesome bass line. However, even that cannot save this train wreck of a song... just awful.
The next two songs come and go without leaving much of an impression, as they sound too similar to what’s already come on the album without any unique or significant features to merit them of deserving a critique, possibly due to the sheer disappointment of ‘Dark/Light’ overshadowing them. However, the album picks up massively thanks to the epic ‘Central’, which instantly breathes a welcome breath of fresh air into an album that is progressively growing stale. It eases itself into life with rapid piano and chugging guitar, which give the listener straight away the impression that this song is building to something. The song grows and grows and adds instrument after instrument until it seems to fall apart and dissolve half way through as it sheds weight and is stripped back to vocals, organ and violin, with Frusciante singing ‘You gotta feel your lines’, which then triggers another period of building in the song in which it gradual becomes more chaotic, complete with duel guitar and piano solos. Frusciante really comes into his own when he gives himself the freedom to exercise his ability to write incredibly melodic yet powerful solos. The song chugs along and improves every second, and hits a climax with a perfectly placed and powerful scream, and continues to please briefly until it fades out; a fantastic song that may have saved ‘The Empyrean’ from being a disappointment. I find I judge to soon, as next on the album is ‘One More of Me’ on which I assume the vocals have had their pitch lowered electronically, because it sounds as if Frusciante is lowering his voice in the same way a teenager might do during an attempt to buy alcohol. Besides his stupid voice, the instrumentation, which is an intricate mingling of strings and piano, is very pleasant, but is absolutely desecrated by Frusciante’s offending vocals, which hit a pinnacle about 2 minutes 15 seconds in, in which he screams in a peculiar manner most associated with someone who has just stubbed their toe. Someone needs to inform Frusciante that as a musician, he is impeccable and has proven from his time with a certain funk-rock band that he can write pop songs as well as obscure experimental songs, but often the over-indulgence of his voice can ruin a good song.
The album ends with ‘After the Ending’, and very pleasant and minimalist song, in which Frusciante’s effect-drenched voice actually pleases as it bounces from ear to ear, echoing around the synths and piano before it fades away to drone and haunting whispers. A fantastic song, at least the album ends on a high note. However, some time after the release of the album Frusciante released a bonus track for free over the internet, and even if you’re not going to listen to this album, or even if you’ve never listened to anything he’s done, download this song! ‘Here, Air’ is a short and subtle masterpiece. I can only assume that it didn’t appear directly on the album because it was either written or recorded after the album’s release, or that it didn’t fit in with the concept, because it is spell-binding. Its simple beauty astounds, as the incredibly fine-sounding acoustic guitar sits sweetly behind a veil of superb guitar which serenades from one speaker, as backwards guitar sings from the other. To complete this excellent instrumentation, Frusciante’s voice is in fine form as he harmoniously hums ‘It’s been a long time of getting out of myself’. I honestly believe this is possibly Frusciante’s finest solo song; yes it may lack the massive sound scapes, the blistering solo and the experimentation, but it’s just stunning and honest, and it’s perhaps his finest moment as he purrs ‘I wish that I had the ability to be your man’.
I mentioned earlier that the fact that this is a concept album put me off. The concept is so loose and unimportant it barely notices, and instead of being the ‘spiritual journey’ Frusciante intended, the album comes across more as an ego trip than anything else. Not content with just writing songs, as he did with his prior fantastic albums like ‘Curtains’ and ‘The Will to Death’, he had to write an epic, multi-dimensional ‘journey’. If it is a journey, it isn’t one I want to take often. It’s not that I don’t ‘get it’ or that it’s too out there for me or anything, and I’m just as much a fan of Frusciante’s solo work as anyone else, but the album just doesn’t flow at all, its slow moving and groggy. It’s a shame that Frusciante is yet to realise that simple and personal songs like ‘Here, Air’ are a thousand times more effective than songs like ‘God’ which build up a wall of pretence between the man and the listener. So all in all, The Empyrean disappointed me. It’s not a terrible album, and at many points throughout Frusciante’s genius shines through, but they are too sparse and bogged down to really affect the way they could. All this leaves me to ask the ultimate question, he left RHCP for this?
"he screams in a peculiar manner most associated with someone who has just stubbed their toe. "
This made me laugh my ass off. Honestly, I adore this album- I love when Johnny gets ambitious, but I can understand all of your points. You'll certainly be getting some butt-hurt neg's, but disregard them- you explained all of your points well, and this was very well-written. I *guess* it could be shorter, but I don't really care that much, because you had many very good points to bring to the table.