Taking a break from the classic rock discoveries thanks to Sea of Tranquility and moving to another massive source of music discovery: Henry Rollins – specifically his role as DJ at KCRW (which you can stream to your heart’s content here) and the collection of books detailing his playlists and the inspiration behind. It was his radio show that got me into the first two Generation X albums, and without his championing I never would have come across Empire, the band formed when guitarist Bob Andrews and drummer Mark Laff over a desire to move in a different musical direction than the more commercial punk/pop Billy Idol craved. The result may have only been one album, but 1981’s Expensive Sound is a great hidden gem in the post-punk/rock and pop world.
If you’re familiar with Generation X, the first thing that’s immediately apparent with the opening eponymous track is how much darker Empire takes their music. There’s definitely a Joy Division vibe at play, with the minimalist guitar riffs and the predominance of bass and drums. I love that it’s an instrumental track kicking the album off, too: the song acts as a summation of what you’re going to get throughout the album, and it doesn’t lie to you. By the time we get to “Hot Seat” you can her the push and pull of the different influences coming together, from the opening post-punk to the full throttle of the chorus with the raucous power chords. Andrews on vocals brings a very different vibe than Idol, one that is once heart on sleeve sincerity and toss a beer rock and roll fun. Bonus points again for being my favorite rock configuration – I’m constantly surprised at the amount of sound you can get out of a three-piece.
Things get a little more electric with the aptly named “Electric Guitar” but it never devolves to the feel good pop-punk of Generation X’s Valley of the Dolls (random thought that can easily be dismissed if I spent 2 minutes on the Internet: were Generation X the the first pop-punk band?). The album continues to alternate between more down-tempo indie post punk fare and upbeat rockers – “Today” would have been a big hit in another universe. Conversely, the title tracks has a ton of darkness and atmosphere – the drums sound like they were recorded in a small closet, muffled by too many of my grandmother’s old coats. It’s perfect, in other words, accenting the propulsive drive of the murky bass and the heavily echoed guitar scratching out the chords. When the chorus comes in and those guitars start to chime it feels like the briefest of moments of light before the song dives back into the deep.
Finding a gem like Expensive Sound is the primary reason I think good curation is so important. You can follow the algorithms of Apple Music or Spotify or whatever else all you want, but nothing can take the place of a true fan and “expert” (I’m using that term very loosely here) personally selecting music. Rollins has been doing that for years, sharing his intense love of all kinds of music with whoever will listen. I’ve been listening for years, and hope to keep findings diamonds in the rough like Empire and Expensive Sound.
OBLIGATORY VINYL PICK: The album never had a US vinyl release until 2014 when Drastic Plastic (who have also done great reissues of The Damned) put out limited, numbered editions. I managed to snag 139/500 of the red 150g record and it plays great – way more dynamic than the lossless version I’ve been bopping to on Apple Music.