Despite initially seeming like the most incongruous of titles, Ice on the Dune is actually quite an apt title for a the blend of sheening glacial synths and summery pop shimmer found on Empire of the Sun’s second album. That’s a double-gloss of shimmery sheen. Relatively speaking, first set Walking on a Dream didn’t have many rough edges, but that’s not to say that Empire of the Sun didn’t colour outside the lines a bit... in fact they could easily obliterate a Crayola 12-pack. But then restraint doesn’t really factor as far frontman Luke Steele is concerned.
On Sleepy Jackson’s 2006 album Personality – One Was a Spider, One Was a Bird, Steele's ambitions were supersized, utilising a 24 piece orchestra, more of the usual rock-band setup, additional percussion and multi-layered harmonies (credited in the sleevenotes to the 'Church of Harmonology'). There was even another Luke Steele in the form of his Ziggy-esque alter ego Luke Blonde. It was a mostly captivating record of Sixties/Seventies indebted psych-pop, but Steele’s non-stop kitchen-sink-n’-all approach song arrangement and borderline narcissism rendered it a somewhat suffocating listen.
Whilst some of those conceits remained on Empire of the Sun’s debut record, bandmate Nick Littlemore tempered Steele’s song-stuffing tendencies, utilising his melodic gifts and natural showman persona, but harnessing them into leaner, more propulsive arrangements interspersed with idiosyncratic experiments. Perhaps appropriately, Ice on the Dune is something of a paradoxical follow-up. It continues the reigning in of Steele’s maximalism in favour of a leaner more club-ready sound. At first it feels like a victory for quality control as there’s nothing like the ill-judged monstrosities that the wild stylistic fluctuations of Walking on a Dream produced such as the obnoxious ‘Delta Bay’ or ‘Breakdown’.
On the other hand, it actually misses some of that record’s adventurous spirit, with the duo seemingly too content to stick to their template, leaving Ice on the Dune such a one-note record in mood, texture and structure that it actually begins to resemble Personality... in as much as the next song sounds much like the last one. Empire of the Sun aren’t a band many will look to for anything too profound, but rather in search of energy, flamboyance and pop intuition. Without enough variation or fresh ideas they’re fatiguing. ‘Old Flavours’, ‘Celebrate’ (which sounds like it belongs on Wella Shockwaves advert) and ‘Disarm’ are almost the same song, in fact Luke Steele even said of the latter “You can hear the melody that’s in the middle eight on every song on the record!”. The biggest disappointment however is the lack of any standout tracks like previous single ‘Walking On a Dream’ and ‘We Are the People’.
That isn’t to say that Ice on the Dune is devoid of appeal and a few songs come close to those old benchmarks and eclipse Walking on a Dream’s weaker moments. The juxtaposition of breezy acoustic strumming and throbbing synths on ‘DNA’ are much like those aforementioned singles and almost as infectious, whereas the ‘Alive’ is a giddy piece of suitably life-affirming electro-fuzz and ‘Concert Pitch’ display the kind of sonic dynamics, and heart, missing elsewhere in its punchy disco pulse and wistfully breathy chorus. It’s equally refreshing when they slow things down a little and Steele takes on a more delicate vocal approach as on ‘I’ll Be Around’, a warm and sensual slow-burner, which is oddly redolent of Mew.
When Empire of the Sun go from poised piano ballad to overblown histrionics on album closer ‘Keep a Watch’ it feels like they’re trying to live up to the ridiculous personas of their album press, Emperor Steele and Lord Littlemore. Perhaps with a little more nuance they can exploit the potential of their partnership to be one of the most intriguing electro-pop duos around - but on Ice on the Dune that potential remains unrealised.
6Neil Ashman's Score