Course of Empire

Back in the early '90s, I remember going to a club during SXSW to see a band that had been getting a lot of local buzz. During SXSW, a lot of clubs that aren't normally live music venues become them. I can't recall the name of the place, but it was normally a dance club with canned music and somewhat chic modern decor. A Night at the Roxbury kind of place. As such, it didn't really have a stage per se. They just put the band on one end of the dance floor. Also, the club was small but two-story with a mezzanine level that overlooked the dance floor on all sides and gave a vertical element to the venue. In this case, it really worked out well.

The band was Course of Empire. At the time, part of their schtick was to set up drums in the audience so that people could participate in the music in order to, according to Wikipedia, "eliminate the separation between performer and audience." CoE had two drummers/percussionists and many of the songs were built on repeating, tribal beats to facilitate this. At this particular venue, with no stage, the audience was almost intermingled with the band and since everybody was banging these tribal beats on the drums, the lines between performer and audience were even more blurred. And with a packed audience bearing down from the mezzanine above, it was like a mosh pitty version of a cage match.

That was unique. One could argue a little gimmicky, but definitely a neat experience. What left a bigger impact on me though was not the drumming. It was the overall vibe of the music. It was a mix of industrial, punk, and metal influences with a decidedly twisted, dissonant harmonic sensibility. The singer could evoke shades of Jim Morrison and Ian McCulloch, while the music itself reminds now, in various songs, of  Bauhaus, Echo & the Bunnymen, Tool, and Ministry. Yes, a strange mix, but it all worked and had a cohesive, identifiable sound in my opinion.

In my estimation, the singer and the guitarist were really the lynch pins of the band. The singer had a brooding voice and stage presence that worked really well with the exotic and dissonant sound of the music. He was also a great front man and a thoughtful, albeit grim, lyricist. The guitarist meanwhile totally owned the musical mood. In retrospect, he was really an amazing player with a very unique voice. He could be textural like a heavier version of The Edge, but also quite capable of laying down straightforward crunchy guitar riff-rock. He didn't play many solos, but really didn't need to since his guitar already played such a key role in all the songs. His chord progressions and voicings were filled with surprises and the songs didn't have predictable pop song structures. They were logical and cohesive in the context of the vibe of the song, but always slightly skewed and exotic sounding. The guitarist's tones weren't conventionally wonderful, but he liked to explore different sounds and put them to work adding unusual textures and parts. As a live performer I remember he looked like a total punk rocker, shirtless and sweaty with a cool retro hollowbody guitar, and he played with the sort of reckless abandon that we all aspire to.

Lyrically, the songs were very cerebral covering a lot of heady topics - politics, spirituality, alienation, sci-fi, the environment, etc.. All in all, CoE was a highly conceptualized band that played like a band that didn't over-think it. A remarkable and compelling combination. For me, anyway.

I was thinking about them recently and decided to rip my CoE CDs to MP3 to enjoy them on the way to work this week. Glad I did. The music has aged quite well in my opinion. Perhaps a couple of bits here and there that sound a little dated, but on the whole the music holds up well.

Check 'em out.


  1. That was ... awesome.
    I'm befuddled, tho, because I know I've seen them before, and I thought it was in Asheville, but now I wonder if I saw them with you in Austin. I can't remember.
    Anyway, I really liked those selections. Isn't course of empire a famous painting?

  2. You may have seen them with me. But it could have been Asheville too because they were together until the late '90s. And they were signed and toured a lot, so it wouldn't surprise me if they made it out there. And yes, it's the name of a series of paintings as I understand it. They were definitely high concept. But they rocked too. In retrospect, I really think that the early 90s - particularly that time between the death of hair metal and the rise of grunge - produced some amazing bands that are criminally underrated.


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