The empathy test in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is based on the premise that machines, no matter how advanced, lack compassion. But for childhood friends, Isaac Howlett (vocals) and Adam Relf (production), Empathy Test is about finding emotion in the machine. With soaring synthetic chords, precision beats, and jubilant ’80s melodies — all coated in soft, irresistible melancholy — the London-based duo takes inspiration as much from modern acts like CHVRCHES and Purity Ring, as it does from Vangelis and Depeche Mode. But, instead of sounding like a mere update of ’80s’ electro, Empathy Test produce a mesmerizing and immersive identity which sets them apart. Shadows envelop hymns, a note sustains too long, a lyric confesses too much.
Despite their childhood acquaintance, the Kent boys grew up in vary different directions. Isaac embraced acting, writing, and singer/songwriter music, while Relf studied sculpture and illustration at Kingston University, becoming immersed in house music and dance production. Such radically different approaches to music became an asset when the two realized their mutual love of 80s electro-pop soundtracks. Beginning with Winding Refn’s Drive, Empathy Test began to head backwards, drawing from Brad Fiedel (Terminator), John Williams (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and James Horner (Star Trek, Aliens). In particular, Relf was intrigued by the way these composers would draw out single notes to the point where the drone took on an off-key quality. Unusually for an electronic band, Howlett writes the songs on an acoustic guitar, with Relf reproducing the harmonics of the guitar on a synthesizer, sustaining some notes to the point of maximum tension, then burying the emotional swell beneath. When this soundscape is mixed with bright arpeggios and Howlett’s powerful and romantic voice, the result is mnemonically alien, yet emotionally familiar.
Empathy Test – ‘Throwing Stones’ EP
01 Throwing Stones
02 Here Is The Place
03 Holding On
04 Hope For Me