You could never accuse Empire of the Sun of underselling themselves. The second album by Luke Steele, former frontman of eclectic, faintly exhausting Perth rock band the Sleepy Jackson, and Nick Littlemore – one half of Sydney’s Elton John-endorsed electronic duo Pnau – arrives wrapped in a sleeve featuring Steele in a vast blue headdress, cape billowing out behind him. Littlemore is clad in a kind of animal-fur jerkin, head thrown back, the sunlight glinting off a huge amulet. It’s a painting: somewhere between a film poster and the kind of airbrushed fantasy art with which Dungeons and Dragons-playing pubescent boys would decorate their bedrooms in the mid-80s. This might lead you to believe the artist is engaging in a flight of fancy. But no. Press shots suggest that this is a painstakingly accurate representation of the stagewear worn by the duo, who prefer to be known as Emperor Steele and Lord Littlemore.
Furthermore, Ice on the Dune comes with a backstory involving four priests with “the spirit of wild animals” and the theft of a magical jewel by the King of Shadows. Even when not in character, the duo tend to describe what they do in grandiose terms. In a recent interview, Littlemore said: “We’re really just trying to communicate the human experience in the best possible way.”
Anyone inclined to make a panicky call to the emergency services reporting a potentially life-threatening leak of Jon Anderson into the atmosphere might be reassured by evidence of a sly sense of humour at the duo’s heart. Commissioned to soundtrack a BMW advert, they offered up a cover of Black Box Recorder’s chillingly malevolent The Art of Driving: “Another dead boy racer cut out of the wreck.” Yet their ostentation has seemingly been taken to heart by the US EDM scene, not an area of music known for its love of subtlety. Their live shows, featuring “jaw-dropping visuals, dancing swordfish girls, cryo bazookas and other-worldly special effects” won a place in a recent top five of live EDM acts.
Certainly, that’s the audience to which Ice on the Dune appears geared: Alive, its first single, came complete with remixes by David Guetta and Zedd, both of whom leave the radio-friendly original looking like a masterclass in elusiveness and ambiguity. It whittles down the mass of influences evident on their debut album, Walking on a Dream – from Prince to Angelo Badalamenti to pastel-suited 80s AOR – into something more straightforward. Anyone noting the accompanying costumes and backstory might be taken aback at how straightforward Ice on the Dune is. A short instrumental intro with rumbling timpani, some proggish keyboard widdling on Old Flavours, and the brief appearance of a children’s chorus aside, it’s four-to-the-floor beats, epic synths, euphoric pop melodies, and lyrics that undercut all the knowingness and humour in favour of something more wide-eyed. You could, were you so minded, interpret a lot of them as paeans to MDMA, or at least paens to the dancefloor’s communal elation: “I’m loving every minute because you make me feel so alive”; “let’s push through four dimensions … let’s resonate together”.
Steele and Littlemore are extremely good at writing euphoric pop melodies, as evidenced by Alive and DNA, which are just the kind of thing you might want to hear tumbling out of the radio at the height of summer. There’s an intricacy about their productions, which are full of deft sonic touches: Awakening features a curious electronic pulse that sounds not unlike the Greenwich time signal in the throes of a slightly overwhelming drug experience. But there are drawbacks to their uncomplicated approach. Bizarrely, given the folderol surrounding it, the album’s failings come about not through laying it on too thick in pursuit of grandiosity, but when its pop sensibility loses its keenness and edge: Concert Pitch sounds troublingly like something that might be performed in the Eurovision semi-finals by a man from Montenegro called Mrgud, possibly dressed like Steele on the album’s sleeve.
Perhaps it’s unfair to feel slightly short-changed. Ice on the Dune is a pretty impressive pop album. But it’s hard not to wonder what might have been had just a bit of the fanciful imagination that goes into the visual side of Empire of the Sun been allowed to seep in. Just a hint of the dancing swordfish and the cryo bazooka might have sent Ice on the Dune into a more intriguing and adventurous place. As it is, it offers simple pleasures, dressed up – quite literally – as something else altogether.