Philly-based four-piece Empath grew organically out of noisy basement jam sessions and free jazz listening parties between close friends living in a communal house. Their earliest recordings were made with a cheap USB microphone intended for use with a video game and would often include canned field recordings of frogs and nature sounds as segues between bursts of noisy racket. The band's first full-length, Active Listening: Night on Earth, zeroes in on the best elements of their ecstatic punk songwriting without cleaning up the production or losing any of the naturalistic dirt that made them so special in the first place. Centered around singer/guitarist Catherine Elicson's sometimes watery, sometimes screaming vocals, Empath builds their songs from layers of competing synths, frantic drumming, and waves of fuzzy yet intricate guitar figures. After the sound of crickets and chirping birds opens the album, "Soft Shape" begins in a wild blur of booming melodic synth bass and cooing from a high-pitched synth. The production is rough-edged and hectic, with blown-out drums and an overall saturated feel. Songs like this and the propulsive "Hanging Out of Cars" twist the melancholic melodic sensibility of sad synth-pop heroes like the Cure or New Order into something far more immediate, urgent, and loud. Drummer Garrett Koloski played in the short-lived punk act Perfect Pussy, and his perpetually exploding drums drive Empath's songs in a similar way as they did with his old band. While there are some parallels between the two bands in terms of energy and trash can production, Empath is decidedly more pop, tapping into the same harsh catchiness Times New Viking perfected in their prime. The shaky hooks of "Roses That Cry" convey a sense of searching and vulnerability lacking in even the most heart-on-the-sleeve indie acts. Even buried in an active avalanche of hyperactive sounds, the song's conflicting threads of tenderness and trepidation are louder than the clutter that cloaks the song. With tracks bridged by passages of free jamming, ambient interludes, or found sounds, the flow of Active Listening: Night on Earth spaces out its bombardments of positive energy. The album runs at under a half hour, but offers multiple sharp turns that each reveal new highlights. By the time we reach the friendly catharsis of album closer "Rodeo Fever," Empath have established a sound that manages to be specific in its raging clutter. Equal parts impact and emotion, Active Listening: Night on Earth is a breathless joyride. The nine songs rise and fall in cresting waves of noise, confusion, longing, and abandon for one of the most captivating chapters of punk's continuing evolution.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas