U.K. dark electro/synthpop group Empathy Test has been prolific in the darkwave scene since first emerging in 2014 with the Losing Touch debut. Now in the midst of a year that’s been tumultuous and uncertain for most everyone, the band has brought us the aptly named Monsters, addressing themes of self-doubt, isolation, and fighting one’s inner demons.
Lead singer Isaac Howlett takes his cues from such new wave crooners as Erasure’s Andy Bell or Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon, his airy tenor floating effortlessly over lush synth pads, creating a sort of epic quality found in many classic ‘80s synthpop ballads. Yet, there’s a sense of strength and perseverance even as he admits his shortcomings, such as in “Doubts” with its pulsing four-on-the-floor kick and hypnotic lead synth riff building to quiet desperation in the chorus, which turns to a mantra of sorts. The emotions continue to run high as “Stop” evokes Some Great Reward-era Depeche Mode with its sparse, pounding drums and brooding synths, Howlett’s plaintive vocals weaving through wobbly synths and reverb-drenched pads. Lyrically, he definitely gives Martin Gore a run for his money in the sad songs department – this is breakup music at its most gut-wrenching; yet there are some moments of hope and catharsis too, such as the hypnotic “Holy Rivers,” which picks up the tempo and the mood with lines like, “Please don’t tell me we cannot prevail/heaven help me if we are to fail.” The last song, “Love Moves” lifts our spirits even more and definitely ends the album on a high note.
The musical influences of Empathy Test may seem obvious to today’s synthpop and darkwave fans, but the band is far from sounding contrived or derivative. Monsters stands out due to its production value, lyrics, and overall musicianship, especially with Howlett’s vocals being so prominent in the mix. If you want sad and uplifting in the same album while still being able to dance to most of it, this is a must-have.