The Empyrean by John Frusciante
“What seems lost is free from the forces that destroy us.” -John Frusciante
Every singer/songwriter, lyricist, guitar player, composer/arranger/engineer, take note the sound of fearlessness. Listeners: how long has it been since we’ve been moved by music without having to go through the motions? Unbind yourselves of preconceptions beset by years of sonic cliché and prepare to be overwhelmed. The Empyrean is, quite simply, the transcendental experience recordings of recent memory have been loath to provide. So turn the lights down and turn the volume up.
For those unfamiliar with John Frusciante, his 11th solo album should prove the perfect introduction to the most multi-dimensional singer/songwriter/guitarist of our era. The Empyrean is a culmination, the dividends of the no-holds barred experimentation of his life’s recorded work. Every embryonic melody and unrepentant pitch shift on “Niandra La Des And Usually Just A T-shirt”, every guttural, smack-fueled shriek, and backwards guitar figure on “Smile From The Streets You Hold”, every dissonant electronic- bed of bent percussion on “To Record Water For Ten Days” and consonant acoustic chord on “The Will To Death” plays a part, either informing the process or settling in the space it belongs. The Empyrean may still be entirely experimental but without feeling so, as these elements are now proven effective or left to dissipate. With this extensive an array of tools at your musical disposal, it is only when an artist is this grounded in purity of the quest, that nothing feels superfluous.
It’s clear from track one that Frusciante has tapped into something most musicians (particularly in the era of pro-tools) may never. “Before The Beginning” is essentially an eight minute, one take, guitar solo with a multitude of severe and subtle dynamic shifts that only serve lift an undyingly soulful theme to beautiful heights it can’t sustain but never stops reaching for. Quite apt for an album whose title is seemingly a reference to the highest point in heaven. From there, the album dives deep and from the impossibly intimate opening vocal strains of Tim Buckley’s “Song To The Siren”, the song is John’s and you’re swimming in something description can only deflate. The last time cover tune was this organically translated and intrinsically transmuted, it was Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower”.
Instrumental? Cover song? With such insolent choices from the onset, you may be wondering where all this is heading. When, from a far off trajectory, a soaring angelic harmony sweeps down to intercept the degraded ghost-in-the-machine vocal drone of track #3 “Unreachable” and all the hard panning in the world can’t demagnetize the moment. You have now been provided the answer, or at least one of them. A single certainty to rely on: let go for there is no telegraphing the places this recording is poised to take you.
Remember listening to records where every track began in one place, ending someplace entirely different, setting you up in time and space for the next excursion, the experience of which would not be the same had you not been guided but instead were instantaneously teleported? Oddly, this album delivers the former and the latter. The battery of layers, frequencies and unconventional instrumentation gives the whole an inter-dimensional feel and since each part is epic in its own right, consistently reveling in unpredictable finishes, the tracking feels unstable, almost stream of consciousness. In a less meticulous and perhaps more natural way than “Shadows Collide With People”, The Empyrean plays like one long song but with a distinct lack of thematic repetition aside from the intentional “Enough Of Me”/”One More Of Me” compositional dichotomy and the album’s lyrics which are a crystallized version of Frusciante’s Krishnamurti-like musings; threads of meta-contextual self examination extending to unknown universes for an enlightened perspective. Specifically, these passages are concerned with the creation of coping mechanisms for failure but even more so success, which instantly resembles its antithesis once the unattainable is attained and nothing substantial is gained or sustained.
While this album in no way feels like some kind of showcase for Frusciante’s infinite guitar prowess, I would be remiss not mention, that he continues to astound in this capacity. On no less than five separate occasions, was I reminded just how gross an underestimation of talent, his #18 spot on Rolling Stone’s top hundred guitarists list really is. Even Frusciante’s most delicate plucking can peek its way through his bleakest arrangement and for the bulk of the pieces it does just that, playing subdued accompaniment to layers of keys, hypnotic bass and John’s massive and wildly imaginative vocals. His guitar playing has existed on a plane unto itself since he cut his second record with the Chili Peppers, but here, it is the sheer arsenal of voices he commands coupled with the innovation of his vocal treatments that gives this album its sweep.
There’s something to be said of The Empyrean’s trippy late 60’s early 70’s feel but certainly not in reducing it to some sort of self-conscious throwback. If Frusciante is single-handedly attempting to resuscitate the L.P from its untimely grave of irrelevance, the format’s heyday wouldn’t be a bad place to start. The fact is, however, he’s been Analog recording’s most industrious proponent since the onset of his solo career and has never shied away from his influences, many of which made their masterpieces in that musically magical era. Yes, Cat Stevens recorded a ton of moody and stirring acoustic folk ballads; Stevie Wonder orchestrated nerve-rackingly soulful garage funk: Hendrix reveled in mind-blowing, overdriven, guitar psychedelia and the The Bee Gees masterfully married some sweet high harmonies to a mechanical kick but did any of these artists do it all on the same album, sometimes within the same song?
In his old classic “Saturation”, John once wrote, “I’m the focus of the bring down. I’m the one who captures what he lost and turns it around.” Supposing the lyric is autobiographical, he apparently lost more than any of us could have imagined because he has captured something here that I was beginning to suspect unreachable.