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Album Review: Imperial China – Phosphenes (Sockets/Ruffian)

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MP3: Imperial China – All That Is Solid (limited time exclusive download)

Sockets is having a label showcase at the Black Cat Mainstage on Fri Jan 22nd including Imperial China, Hume, Buildings, The Cornel West Theory and Big Gold Belt.

First, let’s address the unavoidable: few can discuss any independent music act coming out of DC without mentioning Dischord Records. This is not without good reason since Dischord casts a long shadow, more a movement and culture than anything so narrowly scoped as a record label. Since its output, while significant, began to dwindle in the late 90s, there has been arguably no real engine of creativity to rival its explosive, pioneering hey-day. DC has steadily kept up with musical trends and , building a strong cast of devoted locals, but no real movement or creative hub has emerged. DC is a town in flux. This is something both artist and label are acutely aware in this situation.

With Imperial China’s signing, DC label Sockets appears well poised to step in and pick up the torch where Dischord laid it down. Preparing to catalyze a genuine movement again, they have amassed a strong roster featuring some of DC’s most exciting and ambitious music makers (notably Buildings, and Hume). All of their acts seem to be mindful of striking that careful and electric balance between experimentalism and accessibility, as well as being painfully aware of the Dischord void.

Imperial China debuts on Sockets with their full-length Phosphenes, a release I’ve had the luck of following throughout its life from birth through live performance, recording and refinement with Devin Ocampo at the famed Inner Ear Studios, to its completion and finding a home at Sockets. It swiftly became one of my favorite albums to listen to last year, so I am very confident it will be in my top albums of this new year (the year of its official release).

Opener “All That Is Solid” is a strong, smoldering statement brimming with push-and-pull tension. All too fitting given its lamentation on the quagmire of the maturing musician that inevitably gets jaded with the music scene (“contempt, shame, I guess it comes with age / tell me, please, is there nothing in between? / say it, please, am I really in this scene?”). An ideal showcase of all that Imperial China do well, the pulsing bass and drum lines rumble beneath sheets of various contorted and shredded guitars. 3/4 of the way through, the track takes a sharp turn into a cathartic instrumental closing.  ”Bananamite” sees the trio veering closer than imaginable to a dancehall, or reggaeton track with its skittering hybrid “riddim” of electronics and drums, framing lyrics that are interestingly “relationship” oriented. It is the most unusual track on the album.  ”A Modern Life” serves up some guitar tones and vocals that bear some remarkable resemblance to Tool. Accordingly, this may be the most brooding track along with its introspective lyrics on an unsatisfying life lived. These two tracks, moreso “Bananmite,” are the only moments where the album falters a bit.

By contrast, instrumentals are one area where Imperial China truly shines, showing off their keen ear for writing catchy yet technical and distorted passages full of electricity and vitality. “Mortal Wombat” is one huge, exhilarating instrumental crescendo, the older sibling of “Radhus” from their EP, ramping the volume and tempo to 11 with a simple yet highly addictive bass line. “Corrupting the Integrity of the Grid” is yet another instrumental, this time much heavier on the synths, its more unusual sounds and textures giving it a chilly, almost robotic feel compared to the considerably warmer, fuller and more organic tones on “Mortal Wombat.”

“Invincible” and “Letter of a General” showcase the group’s more atmospheric side as they approach the gates of post-rock, painting subtly with a wide range of guitar tones and taut, perfectly phrased drums. “Go Where Airplanes Go” is their most spacious and airy cut that wouldn’t feel out of place on a High Places record. “The Last Starfighter” is an appropriately cold track that has a frenetic, darting feel thanks to constantly changing bursts of riffs and vaguely paranoid vocals: “Things aren’t what they seem, soon you’ll see / difficult to see the forest through all those trees / patterns will remain, they are heard and seen / difficult to see the forest or even leaves.”

Imperial China are perhaps the Sockets artist most clearly hewn from, and weaned on, the seminal acts of the Dischord legacy; unsurprising considering 2 of its members grew up admiring these artists and the third was a peer, playing in early 90s group Pitchblende. Equally unsurprising is that this conflict– how best to respect and progress from such a lengthy shadow — undoubtedly fuels many of their lyrical and musical themes. After listening to Phosphenes, it is clear this trio is not content with merely replicating their influences. They have produced a sound more evolved from them, rather than rooted and mired in them. This album is the perfect documentation of their growth as a band as their songwriting has matured leaps and bounds over the past year. Despite having significantly shorter average length, the songs on Phosphenes are all noticeably denser, and more fulfilling. Tighter, more nuanced and textured, when compared to the four track debut EP Methods:.

Phosphenes is a testament to Imperial China’s distinct sound, meticulously alloying innumerable flavors of rock and pop into something both fresh and familiar. Not without some imperfections, but overall the album is a confident, well-developed debut of a unique and vibrant voice in a somewhat stagnant scene. A sign of a fertile future for both artist and label, and if we’re lucky, one of the first major volleys in a bonafide new movement.

Label: Sockets

Release date: Feb 14 2010

Track list:

  1. All That Is Solid
  2. Mortal Wombat
  3. Bananamite
  4. A Modern Life
  5. Corrupting the Integrity of the Grid
  6. Invincible
  7. Go Where Airplanes Go
  8. The Last Starfighter
  9. Letter of a General


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19 Responses to “Album Review: Imperial China – Phosphenes (Sockets/Ruffian)”

  1. psycho killer says:

    Woot Woot! When is this album available?

  2. Johnny Q. Law says:

    You should’ve totally included the glossy 8×10 PRS Guitar Ad that these lawyer dudes posed for . . . that would’ve been awesome.

  3. Undetectable Genius says:

    Great album from what I hear! There is a great deal of promise for these guys in the Juggalo world and the dark carnival demographic!

  4. Black Ops says:

    PRS is for nerds

  5. Tom Celica says:

    Imperial China has also gone out of its way to give other DC-area bands a boost in a way that few others do these days.

  6. Tom Sellecks's Mustache says:

    These guys rocks, def a must have album.

  7. Father Hilton says:

    Imperial China absolutely rules. They are awesome. Can’t wait to get the album.

  8. matt says:

    pyscho killer: The album should be available in hard copy on January 22nd at Black cat and digitally in february. Feel free to write if you’d like a copy.

  9. For Real? says:

    These dudes are lawyers? Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeew. Something about that just ain’t right.

  10. For Really Realz says:

    Yeah, on top of that, one of them represented John Walker Lindh “The American Taliban” and another represents Balloon Boy’s parents. It just ain’t right. They are godless bastards.

  11. JimO says:

    thanks for helping me discover this really interesting band.

  12. Correction says:

    For Really Realz, I think you meant to say that they are sons of motherless goats.

  13. For Really Realz says:

    Forgive me, Correction. I know that I, Really Realz, do not have your superior intellect and education. But could it be that once again, you are angry at something else, and are looking to take it out on me?

  14. Correction says:

    you WILL die like dogs

  15. [...] Drei Herren aus Washington, DC, die in Dissonanz und Sperrigkeit ihr musikalisches Heil suchen – da scheint es beinahe umöglich etwas zu schreiben, ohne das Wort Dischord zu erwähnen; erst recht, wenn diese sich ähnlich kratziger Gitarrenriffs und sprech-singenden Vokalbeiträgen bedienen, wie das Indie-Flaggschiff FUGAZI, die vertonte Ethik von Dischord Records. Während Ian MayKayes Label in den letzten Jahren aber eher mit der Verwaltung und Aufarbeitung der glorreichen, längst vergangenen Blütezeit beschäftigt war und wenig neue spannende Sachen zu Stande gebracht hat, scheint jetzt mit Sockets ein Label bereit zu stehen, den Indie-Sound der US-Hauptstadt neu zu bündeln: Preparing to catalyze a genuine movement again, they have amassed a strong roster featuring some of DC’s most exciting and ambitious music makers (notably BUILDINGS, and HUME). All of their acts seem to be mindful of striking that careful and electric balance between experimentalism and accessibility, as well as being painfully aware of the Dischord void. [via] [...]

  16. kon says:

    this band is amazing! absolutely what I was looking for for quite a while! thanks for that.

  17. [...] post marks trescientos posts here at 1146 miles. Way back before this blog had even one post, Aural States highlighted Imperial China. Their January post noted the split release of Imperial China’s [...]

  18. [...] post marks trescientos posts here at 1146 miles. Way back before this blog had even one post, Aural States highlighted Imperial China. Their January post noted the split release of Imperial China’s [...]

  19. [...] hooked on Imperial China’s latest, ‘Phosphenes’ which our friends over at Aural States championed with, “Phosphenes is a testament to Imperial China’s distinct sound, [...]

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