Like most guys my age (mid thirties), I spent a large portion of my young life listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. At one time, they were an edgy band full of energy, and each funky album was an instant party fueled by infections grooves, irreverent lyrics, and ass-kicking excitement. This all ended after Blood Sugar Sex Magic was released – the last great RHCP’s album, at least as far as I am concerned. Yes, the Peppers grew up. They got married, had kids, cleaned up, and sadly lost their edge. As far as their mental and physical health goes–-they matured as people, good for them. Unfortunately, their music didn’t make the transition intact and it has suffered ever since. Their edge has dulled, and in its place a series of mediocre ballads and polished corporate rock.
Luckily for us, one Pepper still has it, and that is guitarist-singer/songwriter John Frusciante.
Frusciante’s solo career has always existed just outside of my sphere of influence. I’ve known about it, even admired some of it, but have never fully embraced it. And I don’t really know why. He seems like an artist who would be right up my ally. Influenced by the school of Syd Berrett, Frusciante’s solo career has been marked with experimental guitar playing and song writing, sometimes to the detriment of listenability. His albums have been interesting, and while they be a little uneven, at least he is always trying something different and pushing himself as an artist.
The Empyrean is different, and I am confident in declaring it his crowning achievement. It may very well be a modern psychedelic masterpiece.
It is, at its core, a concept album. I know that the term ‘concept album’ carries with it some negative baggage, especially to all but the most die-hard prog-rock and metal fans. But fear not dear listeners, this is not some pretentious art-rock opera, nor do you need a degree in music to appreciate it. Think of it as Frusciante’s Dark Side of the Moon, or perhaps his Pet Sounds. I’ve read that it is about a number of personas existing in the mind of a single man struggling with good and evil, life and death. While I haven’t gleaned all the details of this concept myself (it is a bit vague), the song titles and their subjects do possess spiritual overtones. While there is a cohesive theme running throughout, I would argue that it is more of a concept in terms of tone, atmosphere, and overall composition.
The album opens with the only track I would label as seriously self-indulgent: “Before the Beginning” –- a nine-minute long jam predominantly featuring a noodling guitar solo. I happen to like self-indulgent music, though, and this track is perfectly acceptable. It reminds me of how Pink Floyd and David Gilmour have opened up their last respective albums. It sets the mood for the songs to come and eases the listener into the album’s milieu. However, I will also admit that it is a tad too long.
The second and third tracks are much better. Track two is a cover of Tim Buckley’s haunting tune, “Song to the Siren”. Also featured on This Mortal Coil’s first album (and in David Lynch’s film Lost Highway), this signature song has been embraced time and again by alternative sub-cultures. And rightly so, it is a beautiful composition brimming with stark imagery. Frusciante does the song justice, totally making it his own. His voice is accompanied by a Rhodes piano and soft bursts of electronic noise. Track three, “Unreachable”, is the most RHCP-esque, and one might even imagine it appearing on that group’s last album if not for the more creative instrumentation and effect work. During the chorus, Frusciante runs his voice through a ring modulator and it sounds amazing, adding an interesting texture to the groovy rhythm.
The next three songs – “God”, “Dark/Light”, and “Heaven” (see, a concept!) – form the core of the album around which the rest is built. Fans of Ben Harper should appreciate “God”; it’s upbeat, soulful, and melodic, and Frusciante’s voice has never sounded better. “Dark/Light” is one of the more experimental tracks on the album. It’s basically two songs juxtaposed together. “Dark”, the first part, is a somber piano piece. It is simple and elegant, thoughtful and reflective. “Light” begins with what sounds like a beat straight off of a Casio keyboard, soon joined by a manipulated choral part and a damn funky bass line courtesy of Flea. “Heaven” closes up the central trilogy and is one of the album’s most mature songs. It utilizes a number of creative sounds and effects and the instrumentation is expertly produced, each part sits perfectly within the stereofield.
The final four songs are “Enough of Me”, “Central”, “One More of Me”, and “After the Ending”. “Enough of Me” is the only truly mediocre song on the album. It’s inclusion is neither good or bad, it doesn’t add or subtract anything–it’s just kind of there. On “Central”, Frusciante is joined by Johnny Marr, legendary guitarist from The Smiths. This is the most guitar-heavy track on the album, closing out with a sonic onslaught of epic proportions. With “One More of Me” we find Frusciante having fun with his vocals as he sings in a much lower register than his usual Cat Stevens-esque timbre. And finally, bringing it all to a subtle and beautiful end is “After the Ending”, a strange little tune with a number of bizarre synth phrases and quirky effects.
If this is Frusciante’s masterpiece, then he can rest well–mission accomplished. The Empyrean is fantastic. In this day of iTunes singles and bands who don’t seem to give much thought into the album as a whole, it is nice to have artists like Frusciante around, artists who still cherish the thought of context and song placement. That it was simultaneously released on vinyl is evidence of this; the album feels like something recorded thirty-plus years ago, and yet it still sounds modern–it is an anachronistic relic. Like all truly great albums, The Empyrean has a timeless quality to it, and I can see myself returning to it again and again. And if this is not Frusciante’s masterpiece, but, rather, only a glimpse of what’s to come–well then, either way, we are very lucky.