John Frusciante – The Empyrean

I must admit, when I settled in to check out John Frusciante’s The Empyrean (CDMP3LP), I was not expecting one of the most emotional, engaging, patently pleasing album experiences of 2009 so far. While most are familiar with Frusciante’s work with Red Hot Chili Peppers, relatively few are so enamored with his large, widely varying body of solo work.

John Frusciante - The EmpyreanThe Empyrean proves that he can compose, construct, and produce an album that will appeal not only to his forward-thinking fans, but to those who crave a bit more sense and structure in their musical diet. Utilizing a wide range of trippy vocal effects and guitar mutations, Frusciante absorbs the listener into his lyrical and musical concept.

I don’t claim to know exactly what that lyrical concept is, as his voice, even when left alone, isn’t the most distinct. But you know you’ve got a good piece of music when it can be enjoyed even without full realization of the lyrical content. Frusciante nonetheless proves himself an admirable singer and his voice reminds me of Vic Chestnutt’s at times.

The Empyrean’s best moments come when Frusciante focuses on the music, and tracks like the inexplicable-yet-catchy “Dark Light,” which features an uplifting choral backdrop from the New Dimension Singers, benefit from some serious time in the lab. His guitar playing is at once exploratory, expressive, and suitably tethered to the song structures, with frameworks ranging from melancholy organ and drum meanderings (“Before the Beginning”) to spacy soundscapes (Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”), spicy psychedelic funk-rock (“Unreachable,” one of 6 tracks featuring Flea on bass), orchestral blues-pop (“Central”) and more.

Taken in one dose, The Empyrean is a lofty, majestically mood-altering album with numerous compositional and emotional peaks and valleys. It teeters menacingly on the edge of prog-rock cheese at times, but is faithfully saved by fine songwriting and Frusciante’s earnest vision.

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