Over the course of running Opus, I inevitably lose track of bands that I’ve reviewed in the past. They get swallowed up by the glut of new CDs demanding attention or lost in the shuffle, break up, or simply vanish into thin air. Whatever the case, they drop off my radar. And Empress was no different. Now, in my defense, Empress’s music tends to fly beneath the radar by its very nature. The duo of Nicola Hodgkinson and Chris Coyle play the sort of so-minimal-it-barely-seems-there lo-fi bedroom pop that could make Low seem bombastic and overwhelming by comparison.
The only other release of theirs with which I’m familiar is their self-titled debut, which practically defined the term “sparse.” It consisted of achingly fragile snippets of songs, interspersed with recordings of rainstorms, and coated in a generous heaping of 4‑track tape hiss. Meanwhile, Hodgkinson’s whispered vocals drifted by, so wispy and broken they seemed on the verge of fading out of existence… or collapsing onto the floor in a sobbing mess.
On The Sounds They Made, Hodgkinson and Coyle have cleaned up their sound a bit. Gone is much of the tattered crackle and hiss that lent so much atmosphere to their previous efforts. As a result, The Sounds They Made doesn’t quite have the same presence as their previous efforts. However, the duo’s music is still plenty haunting; filaments of acoustic guitar, piano, and hushed organ slowly intertwine, all the while sounding like the slightest breeze could tear the threads apart. Hodgkinson’s vocals are as tenderly weary as ever and the duo has incorporated small amounts of glitch throughout the disc, such as the skipping guitars of “For Trains” and the iciness that chills “It’s Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be.”
The name The Sounds They Made seems incredibly appropriate for Empress’ music, as there is a sense that these songs are stuck in the past tense, influenced by the same sort of mournful nostalgia that pervades the music of bands like Hood (“The Worry And The Wine” could be a denouement left over from The Cycle of Days and Seasons), Piano Magic, and labelmates Arco. Given the album’s short running time (ten songs in under 25 minutes), it might be best to see these pieces of music less as songs proper, and more like fragments of memory and recollection you didn’t even know were there — ephemeral, always somewhat out of reach, and easily dissipated by the slightest interruption.