Oversleepers International by Emperor XRelease date: May 5, 2017
Label: Tiny Engines
Chad Matheny (Emperor X) writes music like a calculus equation. It’s also sort of the way he looks at the world. Break it down to essential elements. Sum the parts. Toss out the averages. Find the variants. All of those outliers and remainders from the norm add up to something meaningful. But what’s at the edge of the data set? What’s life like at fringe of society? Matheny is a lifelong learner- and he is always taking notes.
The edges, glitches, and the randomness of life in the modern world are themes Emperor X explores through 11 very personal, political, and social vignettes on Oversleepers International. The lyrics on this album range from poignant, to cynical, to desperate, with some short bouts of rage. Yeah, he can rage. The music moves from near-garage band, to power pop, polished techno/drone, all of which border folk and bounces off punk.
If you’ve never heard Emperor X, here is a code: Oversleepers International is like a post-punk version of the Dave Clark Five, playing with Andrew Bird, Syd Barrett, Gang of Four, and Robyn Hitchcock. The lyrics, music- and the images they invoke, are beyond cinematic- they’re more like a topographic map of the Himalayan Mountains.
Let’s climb this hill.
Oversleepers International is the eighth full-length Matheny has written and produced, as Emperor X, over the last 19 years. During the span of his career, the writing, musicianship, and engineering skills (he can go lo-fi and he can go high) have evolved in exponential steps. He reads a lot. Then he writes a song and either yells or whispers. And then he yells some more. The source material might be joyful, desperate, or defiant.
Musically, the majority of the Emperor X catalogue consists of solo works. Some of the songs on his albums, including Oversleepers International, have been years in the making. I’ve seen him play live at least a dozen times and there are always new songs. Then at the next show you’ll hear the same song that’s either been subtly, or sometimes radically, changed. This iterative writing process is well illustrated on the opener, Wasted on the Senate Floor, a song that calls out the irresponsible cluster-fuck that is known as the United States Senate. I’ve seen him play this song live twice, and to be honest, it wasn’t my favorite. But the version of Wasted on the Senate Floor on Oversleepers International is a true scorcher. Why? It doesn’t matter- it just burns.
The rest of the world is changing- so the lesson learned in most Emperor X songs is that you’d better try and keep up and adapt. And from personal experience I can say that Matheny is a very, very good runner.
On Oversleepers International, Emperor X did something different from his earlier work- he partnered with Rudi Maier on drums and Sebastian Samsa on bass. This gave Matheny the chance to strum faster and spit out cynical line after line, because he had two other people to push him faster. He jokingly refers to this lineup as “a wedding band power trio.” Most of the album was recorded live in a basement in Berlin, and Matheny added vocals and piano, after hours, at the club Donau115. Oversleepers International has both the gritty sound of the earliest Emperor X recordings, and also the the engineering genius that he has cultivated over the course of his career, as best shown in Warmth Perimeter and 5-hour Energy, Poland, 2017.
But let’s start at the beginning of the album.
Wasted on the Senate Floor has a curious Bavarian punk-oompa-loompa vibe, due largely to Matheny tuning his OP-1 to sound like an accordion, while gleefully yelling, “Jig it up!” and singing about the power, corruption, and hypocrisy of politicians- with lines like, “Let’s see who’s gay and who gets lonely?” This is a hard and fast song- because these are hard and fast times. This was the first single from the album, and you can read more about it here.
Most of the first half of Oversleepers International could be described as relatable post-punk-power-pop, and Wasted sets the bar pretty high. He’s having fun and it shows in the writing and performance, especially the vocals. The relocation to Berlin has done Emperor X well, “This relaxed, but disciplined, social milieu is very helpful,” Matheny said. In Berlin Matheny has been able to take risks, dig in, and focus, without feeling marginalized. The city is buzzing with artists and changes and trends are rapid. Add the Syrian diaspora, and you get a odd feeling Oversleepers International is about change, whether forced, self-imposed, or random.
Emperor X shift gears on the second song, Schopenhauer in Berlin and turns the volume down a notch. The lyrics are a literary construct, or a thought experiment, that weaves imagined scenes of a philosopher traveling the world, at one point drinking drain cleaner while riding on a Greyhound bus. The song is peppered with bizarre scenes that are rendered in a single line, accompanied by a whimsical guitar line that carries the melody. Like many of the songs on the album, the music is on the upbeat side- it’s a toe tapper, but the lyrics subvert the jangle of the guitars and drums. It’s like a magic trick.
Here’s the deal (and it should have been the single)- 30,000 Euros, is hands down THE FUCKING BEST SONG that I’ve heard all year. This is the one of those rare tracks where the lyrics, music, and engineering combine to create a tight, edgy, and poignant song about sickness and refugees, with people country-hopping the EU on low budget flights in order to hide money. It’s almost anthemic. Rudi Maier beats the drums like a rented car, while Matheny sings about the Syrian diaspora and how people deal with landing in a foreign world. There’s a sense that Matheny is redrawing his own experience and multiplying is by a million. 30,000 Euros is one of those iterative songs that I once saw him play live- and the version on Oversleepers International Emperor X fucking kills it. Piano banging, bass grinding, Matheny shifts from singing to screaming defiantly about the new diaspora. And if you’re going to sing about the diaspora, you need a blistering guitar lead. This is something that Emperor X rarely pulls out of his toolbox, but when he does, you know he really fucking means it. He’s swinging the anvil of truth.
30,000 Euros is an important and highly relevant song for the world we’re living in.
Following the angst, fear, and rage of 30,000 Euros, Brown Recluse brings the tempo down again. This song was previously released as a single, and the earlier version was more stripped down, bare, and slower. It was a tear jerker. No, really- check it out. The version of Brown Recluse on Oversleepers International infuses the song with a little more hope and dials back the despair. That’s not an easy trick, but it’s funny how a slight change in tempo, and a “band” sound can alter the emotional sentiment of the lyrics. It’s still a very romantic song- but while the narrator is wary, he really wants to be hopeful.
The same is true with the follow up Tan Line Debris. Matheny released the song on SoundCloud (I think) several years ago and I immediately grabbed it. On this iteration the melody, beat, and guitar provide the song with a distinctive summer-playlist feel, while Matheny neutrally sings about teeth falling out of people’s heads and peeling skin, the band cranks along. The song could easily have been used as a vehicle for a cliched song about summer love- but the construction of abstract images in the lyrics take the song to a very different place. But only if you’re listening.
One of the high points of Oversleepers International is Warmth Perimeter. Emperor X reaches into his techno/trance toolbox and lays down a minimal dreamtime track, while his friend and frequent tour-mate Stephen Steinbrink brings his distinctive zen-like vocals into the mix. This is a beautiful song both musically and lyrically. Warmth Perimeter is probably the simplest song on Oversleepers International, but after the complexity and semi-sonic assault of the first five songs- it serves as a transitional piece for the second half of the album. You’re turning a corner, and the next turn will take you some place different. Foreign territory.
The title song, Oversleepers International, begins with the line, “Do you believe in the war?” He’s in a laundromat, torn up about about a relationship, and then fast forwards to several plane rides back and forth across the Atlantic, visa problems, and touring eastern Europe in a haze of self-doubt and constant confusion. There are broken laptops on the side of the road, his hand is paralyzed, he gets harrassed in Poland, and at this point Emperor X gets emotionally irritated, as he repeats, “It’s not easy to know.” The music builds in intensity, and there’s a catharsis- he opens his eyes to the world he is in, laces up his shoes, and starts running towards the unknown.
The song resolves to a dropout at the end with just a solo piano. Grooving on solitude. It’s beautiful, sad, and lyrically cinematic- like so many of the songs in Matheny’s catalogue. In a weird way Oversleepers International is like an audio emotional travelogue, that doesn’t exactly start well for the narrator- but he figures it out. You can imagine him walking along a snow covered road in eastern Europe, kicking dead laptops and other 21st-century detritus, at first possibly wondering, “What. The. Fuck?” before he figures out being alone is different than being lonely.
God Save Coastal Dorset is the shortest song on Oversleepers International, clocking in at just under two-minutes. The refrain of “remain” probably means something here. You think? It’s another unique and textural melody about travel and traversing different political systems, and his pen is scribbling across the notebook as he processes another changing scene and a different time zone.
The inclusion of Low Orbit Ion Cannon sort of surprised me. This is another song I’ve seen him play live several times. On the 2013 album Nineteen Live Recordings, Emperor X nailed it- and it’s one of my all-time favorite songs. Low Orbit Ion Cannon was originally written as a solo work applied heavy digital delay to Matheny’s voice coupled with a simple tune played on a nylon stringed guitar. He absolutely killed it on Nineteen Live Recordings- the song was as raw and bruised as his emotions were at the time- shortly before he fled Los Angeles for the EU. The inclusion of a new version on Oversleepers International seemed a little odd to me. There’s more happening musically in this newer version, but the arrangement and tempo of this version overshadows the stark and raw delivery of the earlier version. That is probably my biggest criticism of a brilliant album. Listen to the original and tell me if I’m wrong.
Politics is a component of every Emperor X release. On some songs it simmers, while on others it boils. Politics are carved into almost every song on Oversleepers International. Riot for Descendant Command moves us back to the edge- back to new territory, back to the remainders of society. The narrator is on the front line of the culture war. Things are going not going well, but we’re making progress. The cause continues. The hammering acoustic guitar, piano, and rhythm section put a fine point on it. We’re in a world where hipsters have hijacked agitation and turned it into a fashion statement in a war of attrition. Burning a police car does not always make a point, but it’s something the cool kids find entertaining. A descending piano riff, banging guitar, punctuated by bass and percussion- with shouted lyrics brings us provide some irony to the lyrics. These people are not going to save us from the apocalypse. It’s questionable whether or not the resistance can save us- but they like to shout slogans. Because, fun.
5-hour Energy, Poland, 2017 is the album closer- and it combines compositional elements from different parts of the album. This song is the solution to the calculus equation Matheny has been working out over the previous ten songs.
The acoustic guitar on 5-hour Energy is up front, and Matheny fingerpicks a complex repeating riff. Meanwhile the percussion moves away from the standard 4/4 beat and wobbles around to EXACTLY the right places. Electric keyboards create faint and distant pulses, then a haze, then switch to a melody, then disappear. The lyrics are poetic- they might sound like random phrases to us, but for Matheny they probably represent events that were both normal and profound. Because that’s how the world is.
I wish I had the lyric sheet for this one- the vocal delivery is quiet, but edgy. And beautiful.
“I saw a little moth and the halo that the yellow lights gave off.”
“Coastal airport closure in the snow.”
“I guess you’ve heard I’ve got a little cough. So what? You’ve had your arm blown off.”
“Faceless vultures let us go.”
Both the song, and the album, comes to a close in an endless spiral scratch, when the needle get’s to the end of a record and that last groove has a sound. 5-hour Energy, Poland, 2017 resolves into a highly listenable piece of ambient drone. I’ve been listening to this one for a couple of months- four times while writing this review. If you get the vinyl version of Oversleepers International, you could literally play this song until you lose electricity. 5-hour Energy, Poland, 2017 is the most extremely well composed and artfully delivered song on Oversleepers International. The beat is light and totally non-rock, the music has a nice low-key vibe, the acoustic guitar riff is hypnotic, while the vocals tell a tale of horror (that lyrical subversion thing I mentioned earlier). The transition between the lyrics and melody to the final looping drone is nearly seamless. You don’t expect it, but when it arrives you just ride with it, because you don’t really notice, you’re just drifting. This is the longest song on the digital album (11:11) – but it’s also a summation- it’s the end of the story of Oversleepers International, and the beginning of the next Emperor X transform. Most of the earlier Emperor X albums end with a barn burner of defiant rage, but 5-hour energy, and Oversleepers International, is the work of a mature artist. Emperor X is still moving, still adapting, still learning.
There is no answer to the calculus equation posed on Oversleepers International– there are open questions, dreams, and soul crushing realities packed into these 11 songs. Sometimes the they all intersect- and when the music locks in, and you find yourself like a dot on a very big map. If you want to get physically or emotionally from Point A to Point B on Emperor X’s map, you might have to run fast and far to find that place.
Note to self: I need to buy Emperor X a new pair of running shoes.