I Am Empire’s rookie release with Tooth & Nail Records, entitled Kings, was one of the biggest surprises of 2011. My expectation of a decent hard rock album was blown out of proportion by a band who, at the time, was obviously ahead of their own potential. The band’s musical approach was Muse-esque in its wiry feel, but an overload of adrenaline-laced guitar riffs and energetic rock anthems made the album a surprisingly solid one – and an exciting one at that. The band not only was able to create a thick, tight sound, but they established a unique identity, and for many bands in the modern rock/post-grunge scene, this is very hard to do.
With as much as I enjoyed the band’s first album, I hoped they would be able to progress and create an appealing follow-up in Anchors. The cover art gives the impression that the record is a continuation of the band’s debut. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. This album – while not completely separating itself from the rocky feel of Kings – is a much more aggressive, compact approach. If you thought many of the songs off the band’s debut were all over the place musically, you may be happy to find that Anchors is a much more focused effort. The guitars shift into heavier, more technical zones musically, creating a sound much more along the lines of post-hardcore or alt-metal than the My Chemical Romance-esque hard rock found on their debut. However, the Muse influence remains, and vocalist Austin Lyons’ wild vocals bring the same gothic intensity found on the band’s rookie album. If anything, I Am Empire has polished their sound in attempt to perfect their punk-rooted hard rock sound.
The resulting product is a mixed bag. Although the angst and overall power of Anchors is at an all-time high, sadly, many of the songs flop in terms of catchiness. The hooks on Kings were much more memorable, and the amount of variety that the record offered goes unmatched on the group’s follow-up. Out of all of the tracks, “Sing” is probably the album’s biggest stand-out. Hook-driven and fueled by emotional songwriting, “Sing” is not only the album’s most vivid, well-written track, but it’s also its deepest cut. It’s quite obvious why the song stands out, as in comparison to the merciful feel of “Sing,” most of the album is a ruthless rock venture. Opener “Gravity Bomb” provides one of the album’s best choruses, while “Gasoline” and “The Mastermind Is Me” bring the heat with their destructive guitars. “All Around Me Now” is a fist-pumping jam, although – as the album’s third track – it finds the band falling into a predictable formula characterized by energetic intros, attempts at huge, catchy choruses, and guitar solos.
One of the things Anchors is missing is a strong ballad, and Kings not only provided multiple slow tracks, but an excellent variety of tempos and moods too. For the most part, Anchors is huge and heavy, lacking the range that allowed Kings to flourish. “Remedy” is the album’s softest track, and it’s one of the record’s most forgettable tracks. In addition, the production feels a bit toned-down. Despite the band showing an edgier musical side, the slick production prevents the songs from hitting as hard as they can. However, the band should be applauded for their attempts at progression, as I Am Empire has developed a stronger, more stable sound in comparison to the rambunctiousness of their debut.
In comparison to Kings, I Am Empire’s sophomore effort is a bit dividing. Fans of the debut may be a bit underwhelmed by Anchors’ lack of replay value and little diversity, while those looking for a more defined musical direction may be more than pleased by the album’s cohesiveness. As a huge fan of Kings, I found Anchors to be a bit restrained. The guitars are immense as always and Lyons’ vocals are distinct and fitting, but something just feels lacking. Whether it’s the album’s formulaic approach or weak compositional elements, I’m hoping that as they continue to evolve as a band, I Am Empire can find a firm balance of variety, compactness, and uniquity.