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Empire

by Jack Rabid

Ex-original 1976-1979 English punks made a surfeit of really good, interesting records in the early '80s that failed to garner the wider attention their former bands enjoyed. (The opposite occurred in the U.S., where ex-punks finally secured the indie record deals their old punk bands had been shut out of as if they'd been blackballed.) True, a few carried on selling just as many great records in their new bands as they had before (such as PiL, Magazine, early Simple Minds, and Big Country). But there were many more examples of the unfairly unwanted, like Steve Diggle's F.O.C., TV Smith, Ruts D.C., Pauline Murray, the Aces, Colin Newman, Captain Sensible (apart from two fluke U.K. hit singles), the Professionals, Poly Styrene, Shake, the Armoury Show, and even the first odd and intriguing Jimmy Pursey solo LP. Of all of these before-and-after stories, though, the most galling was watching Billy Idol become an international star while no one heard the really ambitious music made by his more talented ex-Generation X mates, guitarist Derwood Andrews and drummer Mark Laff, for one album in 1981 as Empire.

Let this reissue speak for this injustice, then, 22 years later, when few today think of Idol as anything but a novelty has-been. It's hard to capture what is so lofty about this LP, though start with side two (from "Safety" to "Stand"). Young outsiders in their previous group, the ex-Gen-X'ers and bassist Bernal were clearly feeling their way, but their explorations held some secret weapons: Laff was willing to alternate his established weighty pounding with laying back half the time, leaving room for Bernal's early Cure-like basslines; and Andrews supplied astonishing primer on post-punk guitar with a splash of reverb. Already one of the hottest punk guitarists in history based on 1978's Generation X, Expensive Sound represented the full flowering of a player tripling the range of what his guitar could express. At the same time, Greg Sage of the Wipers was recording the similarly unusual Youth of America, Andrews' ability to whip up a wall of chords to rival Killing Joke and then twist them into more dark, moody, subconscious passages like the just-expired Joy Division is what this LP still confers so long after it appeared and died at birth. Call it "expansive" sound. The biggest surprise of all, however: pressed into singing, Andrews turned out to have an uncommonly high range and a strangely affecting, sincere, and resolute voice -- especially in the way he wasn't afraid to sing quietly, like he was humming to himself, whenever his guitar diminished in volume, using the void to create lighter undulations on the best songs such as "All These Things" (a tempest of self-worry) and "New Emotion." And the opening instrumental "Empire" remains the clap of approaching storm clouds, the rumbling, bubbling wrath of Zeus. If the new label hadn't gone broke just putting out the LP, maybe the usual industry indifference could have been overcome. But alas, it sunk without trace, or so it was thought. But no! American hardcore kids venerated the original punk bands no longer around to play for them, and followed their later careers intently. The right people in D.C. (especially mover and shaker buddies Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins) did see the phenomenal worth of this obscure LP that only sold out what little it did by being stocked in Generation X bins. They passed it around from there. Thus, the guitar sound and style of Expensive Sound -- on "Empire" in particular -- did directly inspire the D.C mid-'80s post-punk Dischord scene, built around the now legendary likes of Embrace, Rites of Spring, Marginal Man, 3, Gray Matter, later Scream, and later Government Issue. So no wonder it took a D.C. label, PPP, not only to get these tapes off Andrews, but to stock the reissue with seven, count 'em, seven bonus (and equally valuable) studio cuts, nearly an entire 'nother LP of great stuff! (The piano-and-tambourine track "Impulse" is a particular find, showing the even greater possibilities of the band if only they'd carried on.) There are also an additional four live songs from one of the only four shows Empire ever played, even if these are only basic bootleg quality (better than nothing). Even without comparing this music to the odorous banality of "Rebel Yell," Andrews and Laff were clearly on to something. And it took someone else's scene an ocean away to recognize the well-titled Expensive Sound's submerged brilliance and utter uniqueness. Few records have sounded like it since.