I suppose it’s a bit strange to review a CD that is essentially unfinished. But such is the case with this, Lycia’s “longlost” final album. Although work originally began on what was to become Empty Space back in 1999, various setbacks and problems ensued, eventually resulting in Mike VanPortfleet (who was Lycia’s driving force throughout its existence) dissolving the band for good. In 2001, VanPortfleet finished up the final mixes, but the album sat on the shelves for another year and a half before it was picked up by the longtime fans over at Silber.
Because of the album’s rather truncated recording, it’s pretty raw and unfinished in places, more a work in progress suspended in time than anything else. Songs like “Persephone,” “Violent Violet,” and the aptly-titled “This Is The End” feel less like complete tracks and more like rehearsals or demos that were recorded as the band was feeling out different lyrics, melodies, guitar effects, and programming patterns. As a result, one wonders if Empty Space might not have made a better EP, rather than a full-length.
However, even the songs’ rough forms contain a few surprises that hint at what might’ve been had the album been completed. Curiously infectious melodies coalesce during “Fur & Thistle“ ‘s bridge, sounding vaguely Lush-esque and practically begging for an ethereal female voice to coo alongside them. Likewise, “The Long Drive“ ‘s downward spiralling guitars create some very evocative moments.
“Hope Is Here” features VanPortfleet’s best vocal performance on the album — which is somewhat ironic because his whispers are best when they’re barely audible, instead just floating there on the song’s periphery, tickling your consciousness like tiny little fingers. And “Bloody Basin,” as befitting the rather morose lyrics, is shrouded in icy synthwork so chill-inducing it might lower the room temperature by a few degrees.
Even in this skeletal form, there’s a primal, almost timeless quality to Empty Space that I find rather captivating. Although the lyrics can sometimes get a bit on the pretentious side — in some circles, such goth‑y lines as “Catching the corpse before she falls/Watching her crack apart the china doll” are bound to inspire a black eyeliner joke or two — the music has a darkly beautiful pull all its own, with its shimmering, serpentine guitar melodies, chilly synths, and VanPortfleet’s spectral vocals breathing down your neck.
It’s unabashedly backwards-looking (even moreso than those young pups in Interpol), hearkening back to the late 70’s/early 80’s, when post-punk bands were delving into darker atmospherics and textures and producing some truly timeless music. And I’m not just referring to Joy Division’s Closer or The Cure’s Faith and Pornography, but also to the nascent recordings of 4AD groups like The Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance (whose influences on Lycia have been well-documented elsewhere, I’m sure).
I can’t imagine there not being some disappointment with the album, if only because of what it could’ve been. But even so, it should serve as a healthy reminder to any fan (of Lycia and/or any of the aforementioned groups) of what draws them to this sort of music in the first place.