I’ve had the good fortune to see Philadelphia’s Empath twice in the last month. Of course there was the pedigree built-in that initially drew my attention. Guitarist and banshee genius Catherine Elicson was raised in the shadow of Times New Viking and then forged two of Columbus’ most-promising, but tragically short-lived, bands in Katherine and The Goners before moving east. Drummer, Garrett Koloski, was the battery for the primal experiment that was Brooklyn’s gone-in-a-flash Perfect Pussy before a similar pilgrimage, wherein the musicians met and discovered a mutual love for shit-pop, Alice Coltrane, and engaging ambience. Empath feels like they’ve already witnessed several spins through the cycle of lo-fi indie rock, punk-house noise, and any genre with “art” attached. It feels more than just lightning in a bottle, a foundation of well-thought out ideas, though at times their ephemera figuratively evaporates among the dissonance.
Flanked by a duo of synths, one the “sour whistle” of Emily Shanahan and the other, the low-end, provided by Randall Coon, the band does much to insulate the clanging vibes between Elicson’s dextrous playing and Koloski’s near-jazz modals. Theirs is a constant push and pull of deft melodies and raging chaos, a luminous stormcloud, or stretching towards an old TNV edict, “throwing flowers into fire.” It’s rare that a band this fresh can elicit such a fervor in the live setting, but that may be the point. They seemingly exist in the now, even if you’ve heard the song a thousand times before. Empath’s current anthem, the catchier-than-allowed “Hanging Out of Cars,” is as zeitgeist worthy as a pop song could be these days—especially when the quartet dive headlong into improv noise or take a breather with environmental field recordings or walk in step under the direction of Elicson’s systematic shredding. This is the beginning of something beautiful. Let’s hope it only grows.
Sasami Ashworth, at first thought, seemed an odd choice to tour with Empath. Where Empath’s boho leanings look towards a dystopian future and anarcho-bliss, Sasami’s recent debut, turns back to a very particular brand of guitar rock, namely the dreamy, wall-of-sound, shoegaze of the ‘90s embodied by My Bloody Valentine, the Faith Healers, and Lush. But as showcased by her raw trio, Sasami (pictured top) knows that unless you tour with an arsenal of gear and a soundman in tow, replicating those deafening tones is nearly impossible. Instead, she relied on her songwriting to propel her enjoyable Sunday night set. The rousing “Not the Time,” the album’s closest approximation to Loveless, was brought out early, as if being loud and energetic at the start shakes out the nerves. The rest of the time, she showcased the layers included in her slow-motion ballads. The album’s and her live show’s stunning core is a trio of songs, “Free,” “Jealousy,” and “Callous,” that burn like a neon campfire. Onstage, Sasami thrived on audience interaction, goofy humor, and nonsensical banter, but it was the earnest heart of these songs and others that won over the crowd. It’s easy to imagine Sasami on a bigger stage, with even bigger ambitions. Maybe not Sasami: The Musical, but you get the idea.