There’s a certain power in confronting bleakness by turning it on its head and creating a warm, safe place beyond its reach. Haitian-American composer Joel St. Julien built his own sonic universe during the depths of early 2021 when the pandemic raged and it was hard to know what each day would bring. Empathy is lush, full of vibrant hues and beautiful vistas where possibility rings like a harmony imbued in the landscape itself. St. Julien’s act of processing the rampant horrors of American life is defiant and transcendent as Empathy opens up.
Striking sonics cascade across these pieces, interconnected by a common palette mainly built on a modular system and laptop. There are intricacies abound in this music, but St. Julien’s use of soft melodies and transitive phrases to engage listeners and invite us into this world. The four-part title track runs a gamut of emotions, with “Empathy I” having equal parts trepidation and hopefulness throughout represented by the underlying, bubbling arpeggios and thrumming rhythm. Frequencies are filtered through a low-pass prism and then turned on their head as “Empathy II” glimmers with increased presence continuing through “Empathy III” as the outside world tries to pierce the shroud through repetitive aural blasts and disjointed loops. St. Julien pulls the strings, keeping incalculable disparate forms moving in sweet unison. It might be overwhelming, but because Empathy is fully immersive it never feels like too much.
On the back half of Empathy, St. Julien’s soft-touch really shines. “Where I Am” is blissful, contemplative. He is standing on the summit, looking back at his creation and finding solace in the warmth and beauty left in his wake. Gentle synth patterns wax lackadaisical yet with purpose, each subtle shift a pyre that shields. Looping embellishments ring through fields of gold, casting shards of light into even the deepest crevices. This is a world where it’s possible to float free. As he says about Empathy:
“It’s my hope that this album gives you a place to be. It is my deep wish that communities of empathy continue to be created outside of the shadow of white supremacy.”
Empathy is a journey, sequenced in a way that St. Julien doesn’t reveal too much too soon. The early moments set the stage and as the closing duet of “The World Is Ending (Again)” and “Released” resonate throughout the cloudless sky, a steely determination has been etched permanently in glass. As the former’s title indicates, there’s no end to the cycle of destruction outside our control, but by creating spaces like Empathy, mirrors of a world where better is possible, St. Julien is taking steps to push us and realize this intention.
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