My thoughts on “the GREAT JOURNEY”, the latest album from EMPiRE.
Release Date: December 18th 2019
1. Have it my way
2. WE ARE THE WORLD
3. PiERCE [the GREAT JOURNEY Ver.] 4. A journey
5. RiGHT NOW
6. Kitto kimi to
7. SUCCESS STORY
8. NEW WORLD
9. Magarikunetta michi no
10. I have a chance!!
11. SELFiSH PEOPLE [the GREAT JOURNEY Ver.]
I do actually kinda wonder if anyone even reads these reviews of WACK releases anymore. I did spend pretty much the entirety of 2019 being less than impressed by the agency’s output and had no problem telling anybody who would listen. That being said, their last couple of releases were actually fairly enjoyable and at worst there was still some interesting stuff going on that I could appreciate. Yeah, you guys should probably go back and read those.
EMPiRE are the one WACK group who I would say have been consistently putting out solid singles in the past 12 months or so. They haven’t been all that mind blowing but compared to their sister groups even that is enough to have me singing their praises. “RiGHT NOW” (review here), “SUCCESS STORY” (review here), “PiERCE” (review here), all enjoyable singles and none of them got lumbered too heavily with whatever that distortion thing SCRAMBLES were obsessed with for most of 2019 was. Keeping it simple and all that.
“the GREAT JOURNEY” is EMPiRE’s second album and their first to feature the group’s current line-up, though they’ve been up and running for a while now. There’s a few previously released songs featured, as there should be, but from what I can see we’re looking at quite a few new songs to get our teeth into here. At this point I’ve stopped trying to guess what WACK are going to do and just hope that it’s not going to be a fuzzy mess, so I suppose anything in a similar style to their past couple of singles would be good and anything more even better. I’m not going to find out if I keep typing this intro though so let’s get down to business.
The album kicks off with “Have it my way”, effectively re-purposing a much loved slogan that Burger King used to use up until a few years ago. Or maybe this song is a Burger King tie-up, this is WACK after all and they love a tie-up song. Joking aside, the song starts off with an instrumental that makes you think that this could be a pretty stompy Rock tune before bringing in a hard, pounding synthesizer beat. I guess in a way this song does end up being stompy, just not how I was expecting it to initially. The vocals come in with a ton of attitude, which works well with the instrumental and even I’ll admit that the distortion used on them here is appropriate. The lyrics are catchy and have a nice flow to them too which doesn’t hurt either. The instrumental picks up a lot of steam as the song progresses, transitioning between several different styles though all with a basis in Electronica in some way. From wild party anthem to soft, serene ambience this song tries to do it all. It’s a bit weird that the vocals have pretty much the same production no matter what the instrumental is doing though, and I think it kinda hurts the softer parts if I’m honest. Yeah, overall a pretty enjoyable song that’s a bit let down by the production on the vocals. Far from the worst case of that in recent memory from WACK though.
Up next is another fine example of re-purposing the title of a well known song. No, “WE ARE THE WORLD” definitely isn’t a cover of the popular charity single from back in the 80s but that was the first thing I thought of when I saw the title. Man, I’m kinda old huh? Piano and a rather catchy synth melody get the song underway before a synthesized strings section gets introduced to give things a bit of an orchestral feel. You kinda get the feeling that this one is going to be a bit more of a Ballad than the previous track was. The vocals also point in that direction, being delivered in a very emotional tone in the usual mid-tempo style that these types of song tend to favor. But then suddenly we’re bringing in more synthesizers and the instrumental is starting to build up and up and before we know it there’s this bright, happy sounding beat going on. Very much not what I expected and if I’m honest I’m maybe a little disappointed that the song doesn’t stick a bit closer to that opening instrumental as I quite enjoyed the piano in it. The vocals are good initially but struggle a bit once the song gets going, I don’t know why but they sound kinda far away I guess? Great melodies throughout though and fairly catchy lyrics too. A bit of a different take on the typical Ballad style you normally hear.
The album’s third track sees us dip our toe into some previously released material for the first time. “PiERCE [the GREAT JOURNEY Ver.]” is perhaps unsurprisingly the album version of EMPiRE’s “PiERCE”, which you can read my initial thoughts on when it originally came out as a single here. Obviously the biggest change here is that this new version sees YUKA replaced by NOW so obviously the vocals are a little bit different between the two versions of the song. Outside of that though, things aren’t crazy different with maybe the instrumental getting tightened up a little bit here and there. It’s a pretty emotional vocal performance with what I would say is an overriding sad mood, certainly not as energetic as the past couple of tracks on this album at least. The drums are very dense and kinda get in the way at times but the percussion does manage to break through with enough regularity that it’s not too much of an issue. The chorus too has a nice amount of power behind it and the vocal performances are impressive, though most WACK groups’ are at this stage. I wouldn’t say this is my favorite EMPiRE song ever, and they do have several that do what this one does but better too. That said it’s not that bad or anything, just maybe a little bit too blown out on the instrumental for my personal taste.
So, despite this album being titled “the GREAT JOURNEY” there isn’t actually a song on here that shares a title with it. Instead, we get the rather less grandiose “A journey” which is a bit of a step down in terms of prestige I’m sure we can all agree. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the song’s opening instrumental though, which blends a lighter orchestral style with a slightly rougher sounding Rock arrangement that is fairly heavy on the drums. We also get some great clean vocals that sound very natural and not very messed with which is always something to worry about when it comes to WACK lately. The song’s chorus is a bit less tight though unfortunately, with quite a lot of bright, ambient synth tones taking up a lot of the instrumental and kind of washing out the vocals, which to be fair they did bump up in tone and raw emotion to try and balance it out a bit. It just feels a little bit rough, which definitely has its appeals up to a point but I did find myself thinking it could have been a bit tidier. Far from terrible, don’t get me wrong but I was a little disappointed when the last half of the track sort of turned into this style right across the board. I was rather enjoying the cleaner vocals and orchestral-ish Rock stuff so hopefully you can understand where I’m coming from on this one. Hard not for me to think of what might have been but I’ll get over it I’m sure.
The album’s fifth track sees us revisit some previously released material for a second time in the form of “RiGHT NOW”. This is the single that EMPiRE put out about a month or two before releasing this album and you can read my initial review here if you’d like to. In fact, you can probably just copy and past that review over while you’re at it because as best I can tell they haven’t really done much if anything to this track between the single and the album. It starts off a bit weird with the Trip-Hop style opening and the vocals are still kinda underwhelming until the first actual verse comes in. Great clean to clean-ish vocals on pretty much the whole track after that though which is always appreciated and the lyrics are catchy enough to be getting by on too which doesn’t hurt either. The instrumental is alright, even if the EDM meets Rock style is getting a little bit tired at this point due to how overexposed it’s been the past several years. There’s not that much distortion on this track at least, which was fairly uncommon of WACK output up until a couple of months ago, but there’s still enough to make the instrumental lose a bit more definition than I’d like. A bit of a mixed bag this one, but in the wider context of WACK releases in 2019 this definitely one of the songs I enjoyed the most out of all of them. For whatever you think that’s worth anyway.
Part of me was a little bit worried that we were straying into “oriental” territory when the first few bars of “Kitto kimi to” started playing. WACK do like to…pay homage to that sort of stuff on a lot of their releases lately so you never know what’s going to happen. Thankfully that doesn’t come to pass here, the opening synthesizer just ended up sounding vaguely like that sort of style I guess. Instead we get a pretty nice sounding ambient synthesizer instrumental that is highlighted by some piano-ish keyboard melodies and a soft but still impactful beat. It’s all very subdued and kinda calming in a way which is a nice change of pace from everything else that’s been going on on the album so far. Perhaps unsurprisingly then the vocals are done in a sort of Ballad style, quite emotional and very cleanly produced. The EMPiRE girls can all sing really well so it’s nice to get the chance to hear that properly on occasion and they put in a great performance here with some really strong melodies on show. The chorus brings in quite a bit of brightness and the vocals get a bit more power behind them here too, but they’re trying to push the envelope too much. That’s one thing I’d say is a standout of this track actually, they didn’t try to do too much and overthink things. They just made a nice instrumental and let the vocal talents of the girls do the talking…literally.
It’s another appearance from some previously released material next, with “SUCCESS STORY” making its expected appearance on the album at this point. You can read my initial review of the single here if you’d like to by the way. It doesn’t say that this is an album version of the song so I’m assuming that they haven’t really done too much to it. I certainly can’t hear anything that stands out as being super different anyway. It’s still the fuzzed out, Synth Rock song that it was originally for better or worse. There’s some nice stuff going on in the instrumental, particularly the lower synth tones and some of the guitar riffs but there’s a layer of fuzz that kinda gets in the way of it all which is unfortunate. That said, the vocals are mixed in a way that you can actually hear them over all of that so that’s definitely a thumbs up in my book. They’re pretty energetic in their delivery and the chorus on this track is pretty strong so it’s a fairly enjoyable one even for someone like me who isn’t all that down with the fuzziness. I wouldn’t say it’s one of the better song’s that EMPiRE have put out in their still very young career but for what it is it’s pretty enjoyable and a good deal more than a lot of the WACK content that came out in 2019 for sure.
Man, when I hit play on “NEW WORLD” and that super abrasive synthesizer started blasting into my headphones I felt like I might not be having such a great time with this one. Then the vocals came in sounding pretty distorted and grainy and I sort of just sighed I guess. The thing is, I actually really enjoy the bass guitar that they’re using on the track, it’s just buried under all of this other stuff that isn’t exactly adding anything to it in my opinion. The drumbeat also isn’t half bad, it has a nice tempo and rhythm to it that make for a pretty catchy listening experience. The vocals have some nice attitude to them in the verses and I like the rapid fire nature of the delivery even if it does feel like we’re starting to hear it a bit too often from WACK releases of late. The chorus is a bit more bright and melodic which makes for a nice change of mood, but the grainy distortion persists here too which kinda goes against what they’re trying to accomplish during these parts but I’m not a music producer so what do I know, right? I feel like I’m about 75% of the way there to really liking this song but once again WACK’s production decisions are throwing a pretty massive wrench in the machine. I guess even EMPiRE couldn’t escape being given a song like this after all.
“Magarikunetta michi no” comes out of left field with something so different to everything else on this release up to this point that I was kinda left asking myself “Why is this on here?” The instrumental has this really sparkly, almost fantasy like vibe to it which was very unexpected and pretty much the polar opposite of the track that just came previously. It just has this really positive, happy energy to it and the marching band style drumbeat is pretty fun too in a childish sort of way. The vocals also have that sort of childish innocence to their tone which kinda throws you off a bit given EMPiRE’s usual cool look and trendy sounding music but you know, this is kinda nice to hear on occasion I suppose. The chorus does get a bit more synth heavy though and an element of fuzz creeps in too but nothing super extreme on either front, just something to differentiate it from the verses. Vocally EMPiRE also explore some higher pitches here, to mixed results in my personal opinion but it still works with the mood that they’re trying to create with the song. It’s an alright track, though probably not something that most people will be putting on an EMPiRE album to hear specifically. Nice to hear something completely different from the group for a change though.
Depending on how you acquired this album, “I have a chance!!” is either the last song or the penultimate one. I have the digital release so for me it’s second to last but for you guys it might be different. Anyway, we’re back on that Synth Rock kick with the opening instrumental combining a very bright and very repetitive synth melody with a fairly straightforward but effective Rock composition. Said synthesizer melody kind of runs through the whole song in one form or another so hopefully you like it, that’s all I’m going to say. The vocals come in fairly quickly and they’re a bit weird I have to say. On the one hand you have sort of typical EMPiRE doing a clean Rock vocal and then on the other you have this oddly modulated melodic vocal that sounds kinda childish and just…weird. Combining the two makes for a complicated listening experience, and the mild distortion on the instrumental isn’t helping that much either. The chorus is done in a sort of Ballad style, with a very emotional and powerful vocal delivery going which I quite liked personally. I’m just really struggling with the vocals in the verses here, it’s almost like they’ve combined two songs into one or something. I quite like the song otherwise but I dunno, it kinda knocked a bit of the shine off for me I guess.
“SELFiSH PEOPLE [the GREAT JOURNEY Ver.]” is the last track on the album if you got the digital version or the Limited Edition that costs like $100. This song was originally released as a free download shortly after EMPiRE found themselves down to 5 members back in March. I don’t think I actually checked it out at the time and now they’ve re-done it with NOW for the album so I guess I will…now. It instantly hits your ears with a super catchy, Denpa style synthesizer instrumental. Shortly after, rapid fire vocals are introduced with a decent amount of grain on them. There’s even a bit of harsh vocals going on too and they actually sound fairly decent I must say. The…chorus if you want to call it that is just a bunch of “woah woah woah”s and a slightly more uptempo synth piece but I suppose it gets the job done. I don’t know, I kinda feel like the instrumental in general on this track is a little bit thin. It just feels like it’s lacking bass or drums or both even. The lyrics are also fairly simple and repetitive, though they’re delivered well vocally in several different styles. There’s definitely something to be said for keeping things simple and it is a pretty fun song to be fair, it just has this nagging feeling of being incomplete to me.
“the GREAT JOURNEY” is a solid album on the whole and certainly one of WACK’s better efforts in 2019. I wouldn’t say there’s any particularly standout tracks for me personally, but there aren’t really any that I would considered to be truly terrible either. That’s sort of the story of EMPiRE’s 2019 as far as I’m concerned, they’re not doing much of anything wrong but they’re also not doing anything to wow me either.
There’s far worse positions to be in though. They could have put out an album like BiSH did or something equally disappointing like that. Like I mentioned in my intro I’m past trying to guess what WACK are going to do next but they’re doing pretty well with EMPiRE for the most part right now so color me cautiously optimistic for what 2020 might bring, from this particular WACK property at least.