View more photos in Timothy Norris' slideshow, “Empire of the Sun @ The Music Box, Night 3.”
After finally hitting U.S. soil in Chicago for Lollapalooza and New York this month, outer space-via-Australia electro-rockers Empire of the Sun landed at the Music Box on Wednesday for the first of four nights, playing their 2008 Astralwerks debut, Walking on a Dream, to a packed house of “Empyreans” who've been wondering what all the fuss is about. What Empire of the Sun delivered was one big, head-scratching what-tha fantasy spectacle that was Cirque du Soleil, It's a Small World and H.R. Pufnstuf all rolled into one.
Frontman and fearless freak Luke Steele (also singer of the Sleepy Jackson) must have a milliner on speed dial. He wore Thai and Native American headdresses, while the rest of his outfits –robes, breastplates, white paint across the eyes– made him look like a cross between an Aztec god and Shogun warrior. Without his album partner Nick Littlemore, who opted out of the tour, Steele has been alternating on guitar and computer, only backed by a drummer, additional guitarist and four leotard-wearing backup dancers.
Well, they might've been backups if they hadn't stolen the show. In front of LED lights and morphing cosmic images, the dancers went through at least a half-dozen costume changes, a new one for nearly every song, and performed retro '80s choreography, minus the jazz hands and scissor kicks. It's not easy looking fierce when you're dressed to resemble a human disco ball or a giant swordfish or an overgrown ant complete with antennae and what looked like silver traffic cones for hands. All that was missing was Steele rolling over the crowd in a plastic bubble a la Wayne Coyne. Apparently, this was all so exhausting for him that by the end of the set, he was wheeling around the stage in a wheelchair, oversized clock hanging from his neck. Who knew Flavor Flav was ever popular Down Under?
Stage antics often hide a flawed band. Steele, however, generates enough of this hallucinatory mysticism thanks to the album's dreamy soundscape and thumping beats, especially in opener “Standing on the Shore” and the pounding “Tiger By My Side.” With his nasal vocals, Steele's not exactly a soaring balladeer (we agree when he sings, “Don't want to talk/All I hear is noise”). But if it's lush, layered harmonies you want, the sweetly-strummed “We Are the People,” easily Empire's standout track, is early Jackson 5 sung by the Klaxons and MGMT. Speaking again of the '80s, the funked-out “Swordfish Hotkiss Night” and “Delta Bay” (where Steele sounds more like a swarm of angry bees than human, or alien) would knock Prince off his high heels.
With raining confetti and parting sci-fi narration, the band and dancers (now dressed as geishas) took a bow after performing Empire's first single, “Walking on a Dream.” And by all sober accounts –cough, choke– it was a dream come true.