In The X-Files episode “Hollywood A.D.,” Mulder observes that Ed Wood’s infamous B-movie howler Plan 9 from Outer Space is so poorly written and executed that watching it actually prevents him from thinking critically, the inadvertent effect of which is that the right side of his brain is free to make wildly illogical deductions, an immeasurable advantage when it comes to his supernatural line of work. Catharsis through stupefaction, if you will.
A similar kind of phenomenon takes place while listening to the music of Australian duo Empire of the Sun, whose oeuvre is to synth-pop what Disneyworld is to theme parks: a bombastic, glammed-up, neon-drenched fantasy that easily out-dazzles its peers. Between vocalist Luke Steele’s elaborate pseudo-shogun headdresses and the blindingly bright coating that lacquers the group’s bouncy, digital soundscapes, Empire of the Sun’s lavish, cheesed-up pageantry is so enthusiastically and blatantly cornball that it lulls the critical ear into a self-satisfied daze.
Pointing out the flaws in something that alternately mocks and champions its own eye-roll-inducing gaudiness seems like an exercise in futility. The duo’s sophomore effort, Ice on the Dune, is at once slick, self-aware, and facetious, brimming with a supercharged version of the glossy, Duran Duran-meets-Bee Gees dance-rock that populated their debut, Walking on a Dream: “Are you a star? Here’s a part of you/Empire of sun, deep into the flame,” Steele pouts on the chiming disco anthem “Awakening” before bursting into a Barry Gibb-style chorus. Elsewhere Steele and bandmate Nick Littlemore defiantly embrace the kitschiest qualities of Europop, worldbeat, K-pop, and new wave, crafting a set of garishly pretty tracks that could easily be looped ad infinitum at a rave. “Surround Sound” is one such offering, a thumping sci-fi ballad of cresting filtered synths and tribal drums where Steele implores his listeners to “push through four dimensions.”
Ice on the Dune is both maddeningly bizarre and bewitching, often at the same time. Like Plan 9 from Outer Space, it’s near impossible to decipher whether the album’s oddball appeals are conscious tongue-in-cheek overtures or the result of something far more sincere and oblivious. Of course, there’s an inherent appeal in the latter: In an age where many artists are seeking to convey the indifference and disaffection of an Internet-dominated, revenue-bleeding music industry, Empire of the Sun has instead embraced their own inner Nyan Cat, using Ice on the Dune to brazenly reaffirm the colorful, absurd, and downright silly qualities of their ecstatic, outlandish synth-pop. Eschewing any signs of trendy alienation, Empire of the Sun would rather just go alien.