Since their inception in 2007, Chicago's Empires have made their career on soaring, well-crafted guitar rock that loosely attached itself to the label of garage music, with the band even going so far as to title their 2012 release Garage Hymns. But, aside from their high energy, the term never seemed suited to their darkly toned, anthemic alt-rock. Garage Hymns could certainly rattle the doors, but its richly detailed production was decidedly ambitious and seemed designed more for the stadium cheap seats than anything. For their third album, 2014's Orphan, they've broken loose from any self-imposed shackles, signed with a major label, and made the big, modern, slick, pop-oriented album they seemed destined to make. Heading down to Texas to work with veteran producer John Congleton, they've dipped themselves in a noir-ish, after-midnight, streetlight glow, embracing wild effects, dreamy synths, and a widescreen sound that recalls vintage U2 and classic late-'80s college/alt-rock mixed with plenty of contemporary pomp. Frontman Sean Van Vleet has a way with a strong melody, and standouts like the title cut and "How Good Does It Feel" are delivered with confidence and conviction. Comparisons to Arcade Fire's broad scope are not out of line, though Empires do err on the more commercial end of the spectrum. There are times when Orphan falls short and some of the tracks feel more like mainstream exercises in big-budget construction than solid songcraft. Still, it's a big step in the right direction for a band with bold aspirations and a confident new sound.
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AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger