Empire Of The Sun are an unusual proposition, the Australian duo of EDM / indie-pop fusion pioneers Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore appeared like a breath of fresh air in the faux-80’s haze of the late naughties music scene bringing a grand look and design along with their breezy tunes. 2008 record Walking On A Dream brought critical and commercial acclaim, gaining them recognition in the UK and US amongst other markets with singles Walking On A Dream and We Are The People leading the charge.
Ice On The Dune followed in 2013 and third record Two Vines in 2016. And no, their name does not derive from the 1984 J. G. Ballard book Empire Of The Sun or 1987 Christian Bale-led Spielberg film based upon it, this is a mere coincidence the duo insist.
But as record sales declined during the birth of the streaming era and an industry shift towards heavy touring ensued, Empire Of The Sun were left behind somewhat, playing only a selection of shows each year and more so without Pnau frontman Littlemore – regardless of them being largescale theatrical events. Indeed, as they celebrate the 10th anniversary of Walking On A Dream with a worldwide tour, the dates are sparse – tonight’s Brixton Academy show is their only UK stop – and Littlemore is no more, having recently announced to the media that his “career is over” with a desire instead to help other artists.
But The Sleepy Jackson frontman Steele and company are resplendent, bringing all that has been kitsch about their retro-futuristic style to the forefront for a full audio-visual, hyperreal experience this Tuesday night in Brixton. Their set isn’t simply a run-through of Walking On A Dream, instead, we’re treated to a 90-minute extravaganza that enfolds cuts from their subsequent releases.
As a computer-generated Japanese female adorns the huge digital display background behind an illuminated riser, vocalist-guitarist Steele and his live band of Ian Ball on guitars and Olly Peacock on drums along with two female dancers take to the stage, kicking off proceedings with Walking On A Dream album opener Standing On The Shore, Steele sporting his signature headdress and oriental-styled gown with a Fender Stratocaster in hand. The guitar is immediately put to work as Ice On The Dune cut, Old Flavours kicks off with its electric guitar licks layered atop electronic beats.
The opening synth notes of Half Mast and subsequent beats have the crowd bouncing along, many sporting their own versions of Steele’s headdress or some face glitter at the very least. The 39-year-old frontman makes the most of instrumental breaks to escape his podium, interacting with the pair of dancers across the stage.
Following an odd interaction between Steele and a CG Zeus-styled man appearing on the large screen, it is hit single We Are The People that elicits the biggest cheer of the night from the South London crowd, the bounce rippling from the barrier to the bars at the back of the floor and up into the balcony. Unfortunately, with one of their two big hits out of the way so early in the set, the crescendo is hit upon early.
Summer-breeze, acoustic guitar-led indie-pop washes over Brixton by way of Two Vines single Way To Go before slow anthemic debut record cut The World with Steele’s signature falsetto continues the set’s brief lull, Peacock’s live drums boosting the crowd mid-way through before we’re treated to new song Chrysalis, featured on their debut’s vinyl reissue.
Two Vines cut High And Low has the crowd singing along as a plethora of coherent light beams in red, green and white spin from sources on the stage and land at the back of the hall, the screen behind the band in continuous motion, like some psychedelic Windows screensaver.
A surprising addition to the set comes by way of a cover of The Killers’ frontman Brandon Flowers song Between You And Me, from his second solo album The Desired Effect.
Swordfish Hotkiss Night from their debut kicks off a three-song run, concluding the main set with the album’s title track by way of more interactions between Steele and the CG Japanese girl for a re-worked duet rendition of 2009 single Without You, the frontman turning his back on the Brixton crowd, focusing instead on the CG character until it’s time for another electrifying guitar solo.
Following a brief departure from the stage, Walking On A Dream cut Tiger By My Side and Ice On The Dune tune Alive close out the surreal but uplifting night of guitar-driven electropop, Steele inviting down Ball and Peacock for a grateful bow to the crowd before disappearing for good.
And as those closest to the stage stagger up the raked Brixton Academy floor, smiles plastered across their faces and headgear in not quite as pristine condition, it’s clear what tonight has meant to the majority – Empire Of The Sun, in whatever guise they take, fill a void in a niche genre for those who love dance music but also get a thrill out of catchy hooks, rousing singalong choruses and blistering guitars.
Following shows across the US, Denmark, Finland and tonight’s London stop, Empire Of The Sun close out their 10th anniversary of Walking On A Dream tour with a stop at Madrid’s Mad Cool Festival on Friday.
Live review and photos of Empire Of The Sun @ Brixton Academy by Kalpesh Patel on 9th July 2019.