If one disregards melody, songcraft, and a general air of recycled psychedelia, the thing that best categorises Luke Steele’s career to date is inactivity. In a perfect world, Empire of the Sun would have capitalised on the success of their debut album and their incendiary live shows in 2009, ushering in another album to let us soak in their esoteric and exciting world. Instead, they disappeared for four years, before returning with an album that is almost identical to the previous one.
And where Walking on a Dream shimmered, Ice on the Dune thumps and hisses. The debut, whilst not being really part of it, landed slap-bang in the middle of chillwave, possessing a similar kind of retro-nostalgia which really worked to the duo’s advantage. At heart, it was a sleekly produced electro dance-pop album, but to all extents and purposes, it was packed full of 80s big pop thrills, the kind of which they don’t really make anymore. Ice on the Dune has the same kind of structures, but the contemporary dance production tricks are pumped up, the same drum sounds and whooshes of synth noise filling up every corner of the songs. And after a short while, a sense of blandness starts to pull at the edges of your mind, forcing you to admit that a band with a name like Empire of the Sun, whose album covers look like posters for action movies that have never been made, and who dress in space-age outfits, are actually slightly dull and repetitive.
‘Lux’ is a big portentous opener, a brash instrumental that ultimately says nothing, before crashing into ‘DNA’, which is essentially an inferior re-write of ‘We are the People’. What’s really disappointing about this is that it comes so early in the album, with the next FIVE tracks sounding eerily like different versions of the first record. And whilst the songs are ok, it’s deeply ironic that such an overly ambitious and grand project comes across as so unambitious.
‘I’ll be Around’ is where things start to get more interesting, ditching the production aimed at the dancefloor (or the supermarket aisle), and concentrating on atmospheric hooks and emotional content. The song is fantastic, almost crying out for an alienated teenager to drive down a moonlit highway in a cherry red convertible, after crashing out of senior prom in shame. It’s beautiful, romantic, and nostalgic, with a big heap of emotional drama thrown in for good measure.
And then it’s back to the electro grooves again, occasionally sounding like a more conceptual, poor man’s Justice. The real problem with all of this is that the songs on Ice on the Dune are actually pretty good, and if you’ve never heard Empire of the Sun before, this is an ok place to start, but it probably won’t blow your mind. For anyone who was on board for the first album, waiting another four years to hear something new seems like to steep a mountain to climb. Steven Rainey