CD, Backwards Records, 2006
The first word that hit me in dealing with this release was ‘Coi’l. From the name of the label, to the label’s logo and the sounds of opening track “Absolutely”, the whole package is redolent of Coil and Threshold House. Fortunately, the second word that hit me was ‘Wow’ as “Absolutely” lays down some of the finest, hypnotic industrialoid techno since Coil’s stint with Danny Hyde. While nailing that sexy, lost-in-time atmosphere with sounds at once retro and cutting edge, the track manages to avoid sounding purely like a wannabe and really whets the appetite for what is to come…
Which is a total sound-switch, as “After” leads off with tripped-out beats and a muted, plucked sitar-like melody. This is very much a mood piece but it builds as it goes on, speeding up the beats to full-on breaks, bringing in extra crunchy percussion then introducing a series of increasingly distorted guitars before dropping out to end as it began. The track mines a territory between trip-hop and progressive, guitar-based industrial and would be killer in a live context.
After these two high-hitters, the album settles into a rut. It’s a competently programmed rut but a rut nevertheless as the Empty Zen sound is established and repeated: downtempo beats with various whirs, shades, and distortions twisting them while delicate melodies – sometimes keys, sometimes guitars – fade in the mix. It’s never bad but it’s seldom particularly interesting. The melodies don’t really grab, musically or emotionally, and the mood becomes monotonous despite their attempts to keep things changing. As the album slides away, the final impression on the listener is emptiness. The music just doesn’t leave a mark.
Ultimately, this album is hard to recommend. Empty Zen definitely show the potential to grow into something very special and there are two great songs on this eight-track album and it’s only $5 but I can’t think of an occasion when I’d reach for this CD. An act to follow but maybe not from this release.
— Christopher Fry