Reinvention is tricky. Six years ago, a Dublin foursome by the name of Dry County impressed with a debut album that garnered critical acclaim and a Choice Music Prize nomination. Today, four is now three, Dry County is now Alias Empire and a sophomore effort that looked like it was consigned to development hell is finally here. Perhaps sensing the need to ease us into Phase Two, Alias Empire wisely choose to kick off Safety in Numbers with ‘Introduction’, an effective precursor that rises above the standard throwaway namesake. The new direction on display may not be a complete 180-degree shift from past exploits, but the sound has evolved enough to warrant the cosmetic changes.
Sonically, everything is that little bit bigger. Synth lines pack notable punch, processed drums rarely lack weight and there’s a sense of immediacy that was perhaps missing from previous work. In general, Alias Empire get to the point quicker than Dry County ever did. The soothing arpeggiation of ‘Lay Down’ brings Bloc Party’s underrated ‘Ion Square’ to mind, but where that track sprawled effectively, this one opts for a leaner narrative. It could easily run on for another two minutes without overstaying its welcome, but Alias Empire are at their best when they bail out early. In contrast, the likes of ‘Out & Out’ and ‘Two Ones’ eventually meander and drag despite strong arrangements.
Still, over-extending yourself is no great crime. The band are clearly self-aware enough to recognise deficiencies, making the presence of ‘Take It So Serious’ all the more curious. A mish-mash of ideas that never quite gets off the ground, it’s at once too similar to what came before and too plain to connect. “Repetition is a safety word”, notes vocalist Kevin Littlewood – repeatedly, natch – a dangerous declaration given the song’s relative lack of ambition.
It takes a few listens to come to terms with Littlewood’s vocal style. Initially, it feels almost Tim Wheeler-esque; capable but limited, rarely commanding and often overshadowed. Repeated listens reveal subtle character and an appreciation that tracks such as ‘Lay Down’ and the brooding ‘Dead Zoo’ benefit considerably from restraint. Even on occasions when the record turns aggressive, such as the acidic ‘Black and White’, Littlewood’s measured distance lends a necessary apathy, distinguishing things just enough to escape direct comparisons to Placebo and Origin of Symmetry-era Muse.
Album closer ‘December’ is the perfect fit for his pensive approach. Soft and stirring, it glides by in an instant, gracefully unfolding a little more each time. It’s also a risk on an album that could use more of them. Then again, ‘Dead Zoo’ and ‘December’ make their mark as much because of what’s around them as their own individual qualities. It’s a difficult balancing act, one that Alias Empire come close to pulling off. Their rebirth is enough of a risk for now.