Yesterday Brisbane’s Empire Within released an absolute belter of an EP. ‘Critical Mass’ is up there in my Top 10 EP releases of the year. Critical Mass shows just how versatile Empire Within are. With monstrous riffs, djenty guitars, the odd synth and some herculean drumming the instrumental side of this album is every changing and shows the talent of the band. Vocalist James Ring has managed to bring out the very best of his range with the compilation of songs on this EP. There are quite a few tasty little Easter Eggs on this recording so grab some head phones and take a deep dive into the sonics of Critical Mass.
Being privy to an early Zoom listen with the band a few days before release blew me away. I had to grab James and Tim for a chat about this amazing EP.
Hey Guys!! Thank you so much for having me on your little Zoom preview last night.
James: It was so much fun, a spontaneous idea but it came together really well. We are pretty stoked that everyone had a good time.
God it’s a killer EP.
I knew it would be good but it’s blown me away how good it is.
James: Thank you, I’m not good at taking compliments and I am blushing a little bit! It means a lot to hear that from people that we consider good friends and also industry aficionados.
It showcases a variety of different styles and you guys have nailed it. No song sounds the same.
James: That was definitely a big intention for us, to make sure the EP was vivid I guess.
Tim: I think the thing that we struggled with most was choosing the final songs. We had to be really careful because we were listening to some of them and thinking some sounded very similar to each other. We actually culled a few songs that we were planning on recording because we wanted to make it that every song was different, and that every song sounded unique and had its own special place.
Well let’s go through the EP song by song!
James: If I call them the wrong name its because we have been using the demo names for about eighteen months and I only named the songs about six weeks ago and we still use the demo names in the group chat! Bear with me if my animal brain takes over and gets it wrong (laughs).
‘Critical Mass’ – Funnily enough I actually think the title track was one of the first songs we wrote for the EP. It came together pretty quick; it had a bunch of iterations but it just kept going back to that simple drum and bass intro. We thought it just grabs you. The second you hear the drums come in you’re like ‘This isn’t a metalcore EP’ and then obviously the riff hits and that’s sort of the gotcha moment that we really loved about the track.
Tim: It’s definitely one of those take-no-prisoner tracks. It hits you, it does what it’s meant to do and before you know it you’re onto the next thing. That was a really intentional thing for us. We sat down with that track for a while, like James said there where a few different versions floating around. Some were two minutes, some five and I think there was even a seven minute version at one point. At the end of the day we just wanted it to hit hard, hit fast and boy is it a tricky one to play!!
It won’t be an ‘every gig’ song then???
Tim: We have too.
James: Oh no it will be. We definitely pushed ourselves as musicians with this release and that was because we had the time I suppose to do it during lockdown. We weren’t always able to see each other in person to write music and so that was a different dynamic for us. I think we spent a lot of time working on our own skills and writing abilities to feel a bit more confident to sort of, not show off but..
Push a few boundaries?
James: Yeah, put some stuff in there that’s not what you would expect from your classic metalcore outfit. We like that more bands are breaking that mould. For me a big inspiration is Crystal Lake, Paledusk, a lot of the Japanese metalcore bands. They are just doing some weird, weird shit and I love it because they just don’t care. ‘I love this, I don’t care if anyone is going to listen to it’ and then they drop it and it’s just like off-tap energy.
Our boys Seiran are doing amazing things too.
James: Oh ‘The Void’ is such a banger. I want to play with those dudes so bad. If you read this guys, please. ‘The Void is so sick, that is my jam. Critical Mass fun fact, I don’t know if this is just too much information or not, but the tempo change happens three times
I heard Tim say that last night.
Tim: That’s what makes it so painful to play because you have to learn the riff at two speeds. It’s just a nightmare.
James: But it sounds bloody sick. Anyway , the actual slaps of the main slowdown riff was initially recorded with someone just slapping their belly into a microphone! We were drunk as fuck and no one was really clapping and someone in the back of the room was just shirt up and bap bap bap! We were like that’s the clap, that was the sound we wanted. I’m not sure if it made it into the original, there is every chance that it did, but I’ll have to put that onto our producer to confirm that. There are actual belly slaps on a demo somewhere , if not even on the actual EP.
Tim: I had no idea.
James: Musicians will do anything for tone!
Tim: Our entire writing process for this was different too. Like James was saying, lockdown changed a lot for us. We just had to write independently so I think you see a lot more of us as individuals coming through on this and less of a collective us. We all have more individuality. Like we said last night, I don’t think it’s an accident that all of us have different favourite songs on Critical Mass. We all had little babies in the writing process that we were really passionate about.
Did you do a lot of this over zoom meetings?
James: We did a lot of file transferring, a lot of stuff up in the cloud. We all took the opportunity to learn how to use Ableton as a bit of a central door, I guess. We all invested in some little two channel interfaces so we could use our own instruments at home. It was kind of ‘Hey yeah I wrote this riff do you want to put a weird melody over it and see if something happens?’ If it did we took it to the next stage where we would send it to Dan and he would come up with some drums for it. Or to our producer and he would try and fit some bass over it. If you looked at the demo folder in our google drive it was an absolute pigsty up until about three months ago. There are a lot of odds and ends, my poor hard drive, I think there’s about 20GB of random Empire crap in a folder that I can’t wait to put on another drive and forget about! Name your shit properly……
Tim: We are the worst at that.
James: File management for our next EP/Album I guarantee you I will be file managing properly (laughs)
I am so the same. I kept all my Zoom’s because I didn’t realise that they sit in the Zoom app… I have a computer with not much memory and a few times I go caught out mid interview where I would be like ‘Hang on I just have to go delete a few things because it would tell me I had run out of space!!! So professional (laughs) I’m a little bit more tech savvy now….
James: (laughing) I love it.
Tim: I think the individual parts is where song two came from. Apathy is song two. We all had these individual ideas written in our heads and we finally, after the last lockdown lifted in Brisbane in August last year, got a chance to actually get into a room together. We pieced together the very early version of what is now Apathy. It was weird, we all had these different very weird concepts that kind of just came together. At one point I think I was holding a synth pedal note with a guitar for three minutes. Dan said just keep on doing that. He was trying to put his idea on top of it.
James: Yeah there was a lot of connecting the dots on this EP, for lack of a better term. We all wrote a lot of really awesome parts that we all wanted to be in all the songs but at a certain point you have to pick and choose and make it flow as an EP. I think that was honestly the bit that we were all a little sad about. Putting some of those into the memory banks to maybe used on future songs. It was fun to take these weird, whacky, creative abstract ideas and glue them together as a group after the lockdowns. It was more a production style of writing than a composition style.
It was probably a really good learning experience for you guys.
James: Oh so good. The fact that we now that we can write music together while not necessarily having to be in the same room has opened up a lot of flow of creativity for us. If I have an idea I can smack it down and send it to the boys and with no ego we can say ‘Hey I see what you are trying to do here’ It was a good chance to kill the ego, learn how to be independent in our own instruments and specializations while still thinking about the other instruments as well and bring them all together as a group. It taught us a lot.
Tim: The other thing that was different as well was we really got full on into synth and samples this time as well. That changes the game when you are writing too. We found ourselves having to leave space for that, particularly in Apathy. We have that synth hook in the chorus and it was so hard for us to just leave that empty when we were recording and writing. We knew what we wanted there. It was such a weird thing leaving it empty and it was only the last couple of production sessions where we actually heard those synth parts in there. Until we heard it we thought the song was incomplete and then all of a sudden we were like yeah that makes sense. It sounded like a proper song.
Next up is Protagonist
James: That was so much fun, that song was one of the songs that we had the main riff and it came together pretty quick. We had Protagonist as a whole song for well over twelve months before we released it. When we were writing Taken it was probably a flow on effect from writing something a little more riffy and heavy again. We sort of took that to another level. Being confident in writing in that area was what allowed us to open up and experiment a little bit. Protagonist is just one of those songs, it has that massive chorus. It has the drums with the big double kicks, the heavies the whole way through it keeping it moving. It’s the sort of metalcore that I just froth. I love to play it live; I love to sing it when I am home practising. I just love to listen to the anthems like that. To be able to write one and feel really good about it is really cool. It is my favourite track in terms of the style because it’s just so classic metalcore and I love it so much. I don’t know where I was going with that, I just get so excited, I still love listening to the song and I clearly boast well. I love it and it’s nice to love your own song.
Tim: I think the thing about Protagonist as well is that it was one of the songs that we didn’t have to redo heaps. Some of the songs on this EP have literally had five, six or seven versions. With Protagonist it was more like this is the song, how do we make it amazing now. It’s probably one of the more melodic songs on the EP.
Tim asked me this morning what my favourite song was and I can’t decide between the next two songs, State of Decay or Fragments.
Tim: I get that
James: They are different songs that’s the hardest part. They are very different takes. Roll Four honestly gave me..
Tim: See you did it!!
James: Ah fuck! State of Decay, c’mon. It was the headache for me. It was the song that I had the most stress over during the writing process. Whether that was because we had about fifteen different versions of the track over six months, I shit you not. We were always tweaking something. We played with it so much that it kind of lost it’s original sense of self. We ended up coming back a little bit from going to far. We reminded ourselves that a track is allowed to just exist in it’s space, have it’s moments and just be a little more raw. I took that mindset into the studio when I recorded the vocals. It is a very honest track for me, it really does go into depth about the shit that I personally really struggle with. It’s a bit of an insight in to how my brain works, it was nice to be able to lay all that out on a track in a less cryptic way. They are just honest lyrics; I don’t think I used to many analogies or anything like that. I think a lot of people will relate to that; I hope. And find solace in the fact that I think everyone feels a little crazy after the last two years.
Tim: I’m really proud of how that one came out. Specifically vocally, and I said this last night as well, I’m a sucker for that sort of track, Even Belle Haven’s latest EP, I loved all of that. State of Decay fits in that kind of vein a bit, lyrically and thematically. I think we definitely didn’t make it easy on James. Every time there was a revision, talk about file management, he just couldn’t find the latest version. He would come in to record vocals and we would be ‘Oh yeah that was the version from like two weeks ago, there is a rewrite of this entire section, and that bit that you just recorded and tracked doesn’t exist anymore!’
James: I shit you not I reckon I have twenty minutes straight worth of vocals written for that song that are just straight up not in the track anymore.
James: That’s just part of the process but boy oh boy did I get good at writing sad melodies!! Hey it’s all learning. Isn’t that right Tim….
Tim: Yeah that’s right. You’ll learn to keep an eye on Google Drive better from now on (laughs)
James: I will be the file manager from now on just to avoid that pain ever again. (laughs)
The bright side of that is that you have been writing lots, especially if you filing system is as bad as you say! Silver lining.
Tim: What else can you do with what the last 12 months have entailed. We had a lot more shows planned for last year. Considering we released our last EP in 2019, almost two years to the day of Critical Mass. We had just gotten back from playing shows in Newcastle and Gosford and we were planning on doing more afterwards and then Covid. All our show plans just disappeared. We had some of these ideas and we thought hey let’s do something with them.
James: It felt like our two choices were either lose momentum completely or just keep the momentum going under the surface. As a local band I guess we almost have the privilege of not feeling that pressure to release stuff, like I guess if you are Polaris or Northlane there is kind of an expectation to keep new content coming for the fans. We just thought we would chill out and take our time to develop ourselves as a band until that momentum can build again. Particularly in the Brisbane scene in particular, we are just such good homies with so many of those guys and we love all the local bands that we play with. We knew they would be there for it when we resurfaced and they have been. We are so grateful already for the love that Protagonist has gotten, it’s been really moving. It was an interesting way for us to deal with Covid. While our hearts broke that we couldn’t play live music more, which is really what we do it for, I guess this has been, like you said, a silver lining. The silver lining is you guys get to listen to Critical Mass and it is completely different to anything we have ever done before.
James: Yes. It’s just djenty as fuck
100% it is. It’s so good.
James: It makes me want to kick shit. The chorus I wrote a long time ago so the chorus has been the same for quite a while now but the rest of the song has gone through some changes. Tim had a bit more to do with writing the last half of that song than I did. He might be able to give more insight.
Tim: I’m a sucker for old Underoath tracks in particular and listening to where we were going with Fragment there was just a part where I just wanted to give it a bit of space as well. In that second half where it goes down for a second, those gang vocals I just love, it fits, it’s just oohhhh. I was really happy that we could just make it happen. It is a great track. The synth at the start of that song..
James: Listen to it on proper monitors if you get the chance. There is a lot of low end in this EP that your average headphones may not do justice too. It still sounds good but there is something very, very enjoyable about putting it on some monitors that can handle some bass. We did that kind of on purpose. We are all audio files in a way, we all live for a good mix, we all live for interesting sounds. I think Fragment really showcases that. It has some really hard synths, a sick riff behind it. It has massive anthemic vocals the whole way through. A heavy break down, its has that everything that we love about the hardcore/metalcore scene put into one track. I would say if one track could be all of us working the most on one track, Fragment would be the culmination of all of our tastes in one track. Sam our producer is a big djenty boy and Periphery, Born of Osiris, Northlane, pretty much any djent band ever, and Erra, he just channelled a lot of that into the song.
Big thanks to the boys for taking the time to talk us through every song. Make sure that you give Critical Mass a spin and chuck the bands socials a like.