Sound — 10
The Empyrean is Frusciante's 10th album (11th if you count the fan album he released free online a few years back). I have waited with baited breath ever since Curtains and in short, it more than lives up to expectations. To take a leaf from the UG Team, this is not a commercial album. There are no radio-friendly songs and I doubt there will be many people who like it. However, if you are a Frusciante fan, this is probably the best album he has released and if you are a fan of the psychedelic avante-garde then this should also be a good buy. In other words, the album is far from accessible but it can hardly be criticized for achieving the very thing it set out to do: to push musical boundaries and let John stretch himself more than he can in the Chili Pepppers. The album is perhaps best described as a mixture of A Sphere in the Heart of Silence and The Will Death but with less emphasis on the stream of consciousness and lo-fi elements. Everything is much more controlled and neater, the mixing is of a higher standard, setting a nice contrast between the understated, gentle melodies and more biting, sharper guitar work and vocals. Frusciante's stripped down guitar style is very clearly present, with familiar hooks in Unreachable and Before the Beginning. His vocals vary from incredibly mellow (Dark/Light) to loud and strong (Central). However, he seems to have much greater control of his voice than before and nowhere is this more clear than in the cover of Tim Buckley's Song to the Siren, one of the high points of the album. A point to note is that most of the vocals are treated in one way or another, so that there is distinct echo flowing through most of the album. Many of the instruments are also heavily edited with some sort of echo/reverb effects. For me this works well with the concept elements of the album. Frusciante described the Empyrean as a story within the mind of one person but one which has no obvious plot. Instead, the lyrics and the music combine together to form a coherent whole. The echo treatment appears as one of the devices to achieve this unity. Josh Klinghoffer, Flea and Johnny Marr collaborated with John on this album but it is difficult to tell without knowing in advance which songs they were involved with, which demonstrates the emphasis on a unified goal and sound rather than individualist expression. John's attention to arrangement helps this along, and he seems as competent at arranging strings (One More of Me)and backing vocals (Dark/Light) as sweeping piano (Central) or synths (just about every song). An acoustic guitar is used but there are no strictly acoustic songs, although considering that Curtains was wholly acoustic this is probably welcome.
Lyrics — 9
The lyrics are not obviously coherent. Frusciante says on his blog, "attention was given to writing words that would gently direct themselves towards the listeners' intuitive brain, and their sub-conscience" (johnfrusciante.com). However, the words do work well with the general theme and sounds of the Empyrean and seem to deal predominantly with reality, time, the spiritual, the mind etc. Frusciante's range has never seemed better and the backing singing is a great compliment to his lead.
Overall Impression — 10
As mentioned, I think the Empyrean is John's best album. I have listened to it all day and it's grown on me more and more. The lyrics, the arrangements of the various instruments, from strings to signature guitar hooks and impressive vocals is very accurate. The mixing compliments the psychedelic, progressive underpinnings of the album. Although Song to the Siren, Central, Dark/Light and One More of Me are the highlights for me, I find it difficult to pinpoint any real faults. Perhaps Dark/Light could be shorter towards the end or One More of Me could do without the misplaced screaming in the middle, and the climax of the album (After the Ending) is a bit of a letdown after the quality of the other songs but there are no major flaws for me, this is just nitpicking. I think it is wrong to penalize the album for being unappealing to the mainstream since that is not what it is meant to do. It is certainly different to any of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' albums (perhaps Venice Queen and Warm Tape from By The Way are the closest to the style of the Empyrean)but this is John's solo project and he can hardly be blamed for at least trying to sound different from almost everyone else. To answer the classic UG question, if it were stolen/lost, would you buy it again, I have to give a resounding "yes". I would probably buy 2 copies too, so that if I lost it again I would have a backup.