Empire of the Sun are simply a band that somehow defies explanation and supersedes any real definition, and their live show at The Fox in Oakland on Thursday certainly follows suit. With an intro that rivals most Las Vegas shows, a light package that is worthy of any pure EDM set, and a lead singer that truly embodies the enigmatic rock star persona, their show definitely rearranged every brain cell I have into what feels like pure energy.
And that’s even without getting into the music itself.
When I told somebody that I was going to spend my Thursday night at an Empire of the Sun show, they said, “Oh, cool, what is Empire of the Sun?”
“They’re a band, and they do an amazing live show,” I said.
“Ah. What kind of music do they play?”
My eyes kind of rolled back in my head as I tried to process a proper answer. Electronic? Funk?
… Post-apocalyptic trance alt-rock? No. God, no. That’s just crazy. I had no idea what to say or what to immediately classify them as. It was with this question I headed over to The Fox, in order to try to decide exactly what I’ve been listening to this whole time.
But real quick, we need to talk about the opener, Vin Sol.
Picture the most unassuming guy walking on stage over to a set of turntables. He looks to all the world like a roadie, probably going over to check final levels and making sure things are plugged in correctly. However, we’re all wrong as the lights suddenly fade and he’s already started the bass-littered siren song that slowly and unsuspectingly draws us in and softens us up. He begins with some very rhythmic, bass light beats that remind me a lot of what you’d hear playing in the background of a club or at Boiler Room. The crowd politely nods along, but most people are still looking down at their phones or staring at the sides of the stage hoping to catch glimpses of the show to come.
But Vin Sol is the embodiment of not judging a book by its cover. Because just a few minutes into his set, he breaks his hypnotic trance by slamming everybody over the head with a healthy dose of heavy bass. Phones forgotten, the crowd cheered excitedly and started to raise their drinks and hands in the air and sway along, gyrating and moving to the beat. He smiled from his vinyl tower and knew that his spell was in full effect.
If you went and looked him up (go ahead, I’ll give you a minute now), you’ll probably realize that the type of music he mixes is not exactly the same or even similar to the sound that Empire of the Sun puts out. Whereas Empire of the Sun can be described as embodying bright light, Vin Sol is the shadow that is birthed when light shines. Directly comparing the two is difficult, but I can see why he was chosen as an opener for Empire of the Sun.
Vin Sol is the dark before the light.
And boy did that light really shine through.
Imagine, if you will, a blank stage. A drape is pulled back to reveal a glowing centerpiece that mimics the iconic crown that is often perched on Luke Steele’s mohawked head. A large screen flares to life, casting blue light from the back of the stage, highlighting the as-yet-unmanned instruments. The opening chimes of “Old Flavours” begin to roll out over the audience, flowing from the speakers like the last bit of morning mist over a wild lawn filled with blades of grass that quiver with anticipation for the morning light.
Dancers in sparkly blue spandex and plastic domes over their heads and shoulders prowl forward from both sides of the stage just as the minor chords of the introduction begin to play. The deeper, bassier notes weave through the air alongside a rapid drum beat. The dancers multiply, but are still, standing on the stage in anticipation of what is to come. Soon, the eyes of the crowd are wide open, hands beginning to rise. They are reaching for the sun, which has only just begun to rise in front of the screen, dressed in black and gold, wielding a golden guitar.
And all at once, the melodic chords that are the opening of “DNA” are washing over the expectant crowd. Bodies are moving and dancers are weaving their complicated patterns across the stage as Luke Steele wakes everybody up from a slumber that they did not know they were in with his silky smooth vocals. Nick Littlemore’s synth is already wailing, weaving in with Surahn Sidhu’s rhythmic guitar licks and Tony Mitolo’s pulsating drum beats.
One can’t help but smile and feel happy at what’s happening on stage. The crowd is yelling along, “Can’t you hear us calling you?” Indeed, they can hear, and they’ve all responded in kind. Before too long, the beat for “DNA” evolves into “Standing On The Shore.” Between the constant bass drum pulse and the understated backing guitar, this song absolutely captures the feeling of flying and journeying somewhere far away. By now, only the third song, we’re clear out of Oakland and somewhere else entirely.
Their show continues, not missing a beat. They dive into some of their old album, Walking On A Dream, playing “Breakdown” and “Half Mast.” Luke dives into the pits on the side of the orchestra a few times, singing right in front of the crowd and driving everybody wild. No part of the stage is off-limits, and he’s doing everything he can to make sure people remember this show. Glow sticks and light up gummy bears (not even kidding) show up in a few people’s hands and bounce along to the music. A crowd of dudes rolls up late into the pit fully dressed like they just came back from Coachella in full costume, replete with feather headdresses that evoke the very same crown that is so symbolic of Empire of the Sun as a whole.
The stage lights glint off their glittery loincloths (still not kidding) as they immediately get right into “We Are The People,” its folky intro perfectly complementing the ending of “Half Mast.” It’s definitely a crowd-favorite, and one of their most popular songs, as it’s definitely catchy and the vocals are so ethereal that they almost feel like they’re not there. I caught a few people trying to sing along, not really knowing what they were saying, but trying to anyway. If you needed more proof that these people on stage were capable of some kind of crazy magic, look no further than this song and the effect it has on a crowd.
Soon, “We Are The People” turns into “Concert Pitch,” which is yet another song with a virtually viral beat that one cannot help but feel they have to dance to it. The entire crowd is bobbing along as the visual on the screen changes to look like a ship’s cockpit flying through a Death Star trench run. Energy levels are high and the audience is hardly running out of gas, and neither is the band on stage. “Concert Pitch” blends into “Celebrate,” which fades into “Ice On The Dune” so perfectly it almost hurts.
A quick tempo change after “Ice On The Dune” happens as they break out a slow jam, “I’ll Be Around.” Bobbing and gyrating gives way to swaying, and swishing shoulders. Ghostly, vaporous vocals drift through the air with the mist pouring from the plentiful smoke machines on stage. If ever during this entire show there was a perfect time to have a “moment” with somebody, it’s during this song.
Rather than risk breaking the audience’s necks with another tempo change, they begin to warm everyone up yet again with “Surround Sound.” This song brings just enough intensity to bring everyone back into the here and now. The march-like cadence of the drum beat slowly delivers people back into the band’s waiting hands. The steadiness of “Surround Sound” slowly shifts into the wild, unrestrained beat of “Swordfish Hotkiss Night.” This song is defined by its chant-like lyrics and almost unpredictable melodies that almost feel like they’ve been borrowed from 8-bit games.
Alas, it was not to last as the band struck up “Walking On A Dream,” complete with costume change. Luke left the stage at the end of “Swordfish Hotkiss Night,” and returns here in a shiny blue robe with matching crown that looks exactly like the costume he’s wearing on the cover of Ice On The Dune. The screen in the background follows a beam of light into space, ending on what looks like a space station on another planet. I’m honestly not kidding when I say that half the fun of this show is in watching what’s happening on that very screen, and trying to piece together some kind of narrative thread through it all.
Finally, they start playing “Tiger By My Side,” quite possibly the best song they could have picked to bring it all together. They have dancers with glowing guitars flailing about on stage, Luke is playing a completely white guitar (more on that later), and the lights are reaching epileptic seizure levels. The tension is rising and all weariness and tired feelings are forgotten as they forego the end of the song, opting instead for a huge big rock ending. The pristine white guitar in Luke’s hands is reduced to nothing but scrap as he goes for the full on punk rock end and just breaks it all over the stage, pounding it into the ground like crazy.
Like the last bits of golden hour rays of light peeking over the mountains, they were not done yet. Yellow lights cut across the darkened stage as the audience claps in unison, hoping for one last glimpse of day.
The smooth synth chords of “Alive” waft from the speakers, and the lights on stage are pulsing when the bass kicks in. Once again, like the day star itself, Luke rises in front of the screen as it depicts a grouping of red orange suns rising over the horizon. Confetti begins to fall like an evening rain, the lights bouncing off each little bit and reflecting light over everything and everyone. As the song reaches its inevitable climax, the video on the screen brings us to the very surface of a star, and the audience could not possibly be lifted any higher nor can they be shone on any brighter.
The lyrics to “Alive,” and the audience’s incredibly eager and heartfelt singalong to those lyrics practically sum up every moment of this show that happened to pass by too quickly like so many “best days ever” often do.
“Loving every minute cause you make me feel so alive… alive.”
Photos © 2014 Jessica Lachenal, unless otherwise noted.
Additional photo editing: Jonathan Pirro