Showtime at the Showbox: Empire Of The Sun beam down in Seattle

It’s been great to be back in Seattle, a thriving caffeinated metropolis and truly a music mecca.

When I first visited the Washington city in October 2018 I expertly timed my arrival so I could catch good old rotten John Lydon and Public Image Ltd doing their angry live thing at the famed Showbox theatre, a Seattle institution located across from the Pike Place Market that birthed the very first Starbucks.

Originally a ballroom, the Showbox at the Market has stood the test of time for nearly eight decades, traversing the musical landscape from the syncopated beats of jazz to the sludge guitar sounds of the grunge era. Everyone who’s anyone has played at the venue, from Nat King Cole and Lady Gaga to The Police, Blondie and Daft Punk.

This time round in 2019 it was an absolute fluke that I managed to catch Sydney electro-glam raconteurs Empire Of The Sun at the same venue at two hour’s notice, the third of a three-night Seattle stop on their Decade Anniversary Tour. And if you don’t know who they are, imagine a delectable Doctor Who-like parallel universe where The Timelords create a stompy house band that looks like a cross between Cyberpunk era Billy Idol, spiky Earthling Bowie and Sting in that rubbish sci-fi film Dune.

Elton John adores them, but then again he probably just wants to bum them.

I went for the music, me.

Well, OK, and the coffee.

Instagram will load in the frontend.
Instagram will load in the frontend.

With their Adamantine cosmetic slap and electronic snap, this gaudy, war-painted Australian duo — comprising of one former member of indie rock band Sleepy Jackson and one former member of left-leaning electro outfit Pnau — came together to create something better than their individual pedigrees might suggest. They dress ostentatiously in kabutos and frock coats, use vintage synths and production techniques and wind up sounding, well, pretty great, actually. 

Their debut album, 2008’s Walking On A Dream, was a crossover success that went gold in the UK and double platinum in their homeland. A British act would have been too self-conscious and arch, which is why the EOTS take on ’80s pop with their comic book flamboyance and elaborate stage sets is so refreshing. 

As outlandish airbrushed personae Emperor Steele (Luke Steele) and Lord Littlemore (Nick Littlemore), this kooky duo makes fantastical pop music informed as much by glam rock as it was JG Ballard, employing so many retro ingredients that it would have been rude not to go every inch of the whole hog, presumably just before it was plucked, shaved and moisturised. 

Tonight the Teutonic twosome take the crowd through a whirlwind visual ride full of choreographed costume changes, alien backup dancers, and fictional characters plastered on an LED screen. Naturally, it’s all done in the name of escapism, an idea that the band practically laid their stake on. 

Opening the show in a riot of blazing colour as it did their debut album 11 years earlier, Standing On The Shore is sheer pomp and class, the simple synth melody wrapped in sunshine harmonies, and more besides. 

With their pretty, evocative melodies and treated stainless steel vocals, Old Flavours and Half Mast deserved to be hits in some sun-drenched major locale in the summertime. If not Ibiza then, oh, g’day Sydney, you’ll do! 

So, no surprises then that We Are The People feels like a technicolour wet dream unlike any sensation you’ve ever experienced. 

Delta Bay is slightly experimental in a Mercury Rev go electro kind of way, while Country is a charming instrumental that perhaps was strategically placed to give Littlemore a breather from his nasal vocal stylings. 

After a surprising cover of Brandon Flowers’ reflective, understated Between Me And You, things picks up pace again with Swordfish Hotkiss Night, Without You (transformed into a duet with an unnamed femme fatale on the LED screen) and the epic, bouncy Walking On A Dream closing out the main set.

There is something undeniably warming about Empire Of The Sun. There aren’t many bands that can take fans on an intergalactic trip to paradise like they can — their knowing cinematic eye for a medium that rouses our hearing feels like a history lesson in the constructive/destructive potential of pop music. They aren’t reinventing the wheel, but they’re certainly putting their own spin on it. 

Steve Pafford

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