Thursday, October 8, 2009

John Frusciante - The Empyrean (January 20th, 2009)

I always believed John Frusciante to be one of the most introspective, deepest and creative musicians in the public eye, but never before had I a recording to point to which could undoubtedly prove this, until The Empyrean.

First, a little backstory.
John Frusciante is most famous as the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and is very much personally responsible for both their rise to fame in the early 90s, and return to glory just before 2000.
Originally drafted into the group at the age of 18, he immediately changed the Peppers forever. His obsession with the likes of Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, an obsessive practice schedule and pseudo-virtuosic musical ability pushed the Peppers to new heights, and directly into the public eye. After joining, his abilities (coupled with the infallible musical duo of Flea and Chad Smith) scored the Peppers chart-topping singles like Higher Ground, Give It Away, and Under the Bridge. John was uncomfortable with the fame, feeling that it ruined the intimacy the group had with its fans, and quit the band. He spent years in his own world, dominated by a terrible heroin addiction, introspection and despair. He pushed himself to the very edge, selling every guitar in his possession for drug money, shooting up so often he required skin grafts to cover the entirety of his tattered arms, needing to have every one of his teeth removed (and replaced) due to a near-lethal oral infection, and nearly died from a blood disease.
Then, one day in 1997, John quit cold turkey and checked himself into a hospital. His descent into his own dark world and subsequent recovery process were brutal, but left him a stronger man. He re-invented his life from that point forward both personally and musically, finally having found freedom from his addiction(s). After his replacement in the Peppers (Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction) was fired, he was asked to rejoin by Flea. A year later, they released Californication, which is (as of 2009) their most successful album to date.

"Well, that's certainly a fantastic tale," you're probably thinking, "but how is that relevant to The Empyrean?"

"Its really not," I would say, "But it sure is an awesome story, isn't it?"

On a bit more serious note, this time in isolation left John a deeper man, and this shone through in all the music he had released from that point forward. In 2004, he announced he would release 6 new solo albums over the course of 6 months, and low and behold he did it. These albums ranged from the excellent experimental band Ataxia's Automatic Writing, the darker DC EP, the more electronic Sphere in the Heart of Silence, to the acoustic Curtains. He also began to work with the progressive group The Mars Volta, eventually becoming a member of the Mars Volta Group, and recording almost all the guitar parts for Omar Rodríguez-López in recent releases. Together, all of these expressive mediums allowed one a glimpse into one of the most creative musicians still alive.

Apparently originally recorded as a concept album, John has said the Empyrean tells a single story which involves no actions in the physical world, and is told through the eyes of two characters that only exist in someone's mind.
He then continued: "The mind is the only place that anything can be truly said to exist. The outside world is only known to us as it appears within us by the testament of our senses. The imagination is the most real world that we know because we each know it first hand. Seeing our ideas take form is like being able to see the sun come into being. We have no equivalent to the purity of that in our account of the outside world. The outer world appears to each of us as one thing and it is always also a multitude of others. Inside to outside and outside to inside are neverending. Trying and giving up are a form of breathing."
Needless to say, I think its safe to say John put more thought into this album than most people put into their entire careers.

From the very first track, The Empyrean reaches for greatness. Before the Beginning begins slowly, with a clean rhythm, then a strong, soaring solo that strongly evokes the feel of Eddie Hazel's masterpiece, Maggot Brain on Funkadelic's 1971 album of the same name. It clocks in at 9:09, making it the longest track on the album, but every second is a treasure.

Unreachable is probably the best song on this album. It begins with a slower intro verse powered by absolutely fantastic bass work by fellow Pepper Flea, surrounded with an ambient tonal soundscape not many could conjure up. About a minute in, the song shits tones entirely, with a whooping bass line, slightly modulated vocals and an added vocal harmony with John's perfect falsetto. Two minutes in, the song shifts once more, suddenly becoming mournful, casting a completely different mood than the first two minutes had entirely. With the song half over, the lyrics cease. In their place John inserts the most powerful, emotional guitarwork I've ever heard. The instrumental part begins with an ambient, less prominent style very reminiscent of Hendrix's 1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be) off Electric Ladyland. However, as the piece pushes towards its climax, John's guitar begins to soar, becoming nearly a scream, in a way so perfect it has to be heard to be believed. I would be remiss not to mention how perfectly the lyrics contribute to the mood of the song as well, the second half of the song would highly suffer without their setup.

Song to the Siren is actually a cover of Tim Buckley song off his 1970 album Starsailor. Its slow, deep, spacial, haunting and definitely gives me goosebumps every time. God is the darkest song on the album, featuring John's trademark vocal style over a varied assortment of synthesizers, strings, dark distorted guitar and a tamborine. Dark/Light is an eight minute epic, featuring Donald Taylor and the New Dimension Singers' background vocals (modulated by John) over a drum machine, accentuated by an excellent bass line which is attributed to Frusciante himself. Heaven is probably the most traditional song on the album, featuring John's songwriting, an ambient, guitar based atmosphere, backed by strings and static.

Central is also undoubtedly one of the best tracks on the album. Clocking in at seven minutes, it slowly builds up, incorporating almost every element utilized on this album, including a fantastic solo, a near-perfect scream, absolutely wonderful use of the strings, wonderful utilization of a grand piano, haunting guitarwork and powerful vocals.

One More of Me features John singing over strings, with almost no embellishments at all, before descending into a simply fantastic instrumental piece at the end. The last track, appropriately titled After The Ending, is a slower, piano-based piece that really showcases John's ability for vocal arrangements before fading away into static.

This roller coaster of tone, feel and style all collectively make for a musical experience that leaves me winded every time. Experimental/progressive music is in a wonderful surplus right now, but even then, not just every album pulls so much into one powerful, cohesive unit.

John's music is not for the closed-minded. If you like the Chili Peppers and are looking for more of them, you should probably avoid this one entirely. However, if you're looking for something that will truly stretch your mind, music so deep it'll sear its way into your very soul, The Empyrean is a must.

Track Listing

1. "Before the Beginning" - 9:09
2. "Song to the Siren" - 3:33
3. "Unreachable" - 6:10
4. "God" - 3:23
5. "Dark/Light" - 8:30
6. "Heaven" - 4:03
7. "Enough of Me" - 4:14
8. "Central" - 7:16
9. "One More of Me" - 4:06
10. "After the Ending" - 3:38

Bonus tracks

11. "Today" - 4:38
12. "Ah Yom" - 3:17

Highlights: Unreachable, Central, the rest of the album.
Overall: ★★★★★

UPDATE: This entry was recently featured on, one of my favorite websites on the internet. Many thanks!


  1. Hi!
    I got your blogspot ad from the site "Invisible movement"
    Great writing and very good review!
    I am listening to the Empyrean right now ^^

    cheers from Switzerland,

  2. you're absolutely right.

  3. Hi Nicole! Thanks so much for the feedback, its appreciated more than you know, haha. I'm also an avid reader of Invisible-Movement; I'm very proud to have graced that page. Cheers from Pittsburgh!

    --and thanks Judith, I'd like to think so, haha.

  4. I must say I love your review. It depicts my feelings about the album so faithfully it seems you might have read my mind. It's brilliant music and when you give it some time and let your teeth get deep into it you can appreciate John's mastery. He never fails to astonish me in new ways and I'm wondering how it is possible for him to produce so much emotion in me.

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