Brad Armstrong’s debut solo album and Cornelius Chapel Record’s first major release of 2016, Empire is not for the weak of heart. Regular instrumental changes, vulgarities, and irregular music tempos might strain listeners their first time through the album. Empire, however, is a beautifully constructed record, comprised of intricate acoustic guitar, raw lyrics, and powerful instrumentals that builds momentum throughout the album. Empire’s songs range from the tepid title track “Empire” to the lively, instrumental-laced “Cherokee Nose Job.”
Throughout the album, Armstrong’s earthy vocals are constant. He sings and writes in the style of Jericho Woods, Tyler Childers, and William Elliot Whitmore. Armstrong, a talented musician, plays riveting acoustic and electric guitar on songs like “2045” and “Cherokee Nose Job.” The fiddle adds a nice element to “Born Haunted” and bottleneck slide guitar gives a western, twangy feel to “Cherokee Nose Job.” Armstrong is accompanied on Empire by Maria Taylor, his long-time musical friend who sings harmonies and provides the lead vocal track on “Deep Water.”
Armstrong is not new to the music industry. He was the principal songwriter and producer of the band 13ghosts from 2000-2012. In 2008, Armstrong joined the Dexateens where his guitar work and vocals brought new vitality to the band. He has continued working with Maria Taylor and some 13ghosts members while in the Dexateens.
“Born Haunted” is perhaps the most powerful song on Empire and highlights Armstrong’s songwriting, vocals, and finger picking guitar:
“In the ten years I’ve been gone, I’ve called many a woman home, I’ve done work that I’d rather not recall, But never did I betray, The gentle tide and island, When you gave me you heart for a song.”
“No Vain Apology” is written in a similar style about a man whose friends and wife leave him for his behavior. Armstrong eloquently draws on topography to describe the man’s sentiment, referencing deserts, clouds, ocean, and storms, and notes that the “ground descends upon me like a breaking wave.”
These songs alone could sell the album, but Armstrong builds on them with other spectacular tracks. “Cherokee Nose Job” is the standout song on the album. Slide guitar, ripping electric guitar riffs, acoustic fingerpicking, and Armstrong’s vocals create a jamming song that could serve as the backdrop to any good western movie. The lyrics are raw, vulgar, and real, but Armstrong pulls it off in stunning fashion.
“She wears her shamefulness like a mask, But she’ll kiss you anywhere that you would ask, I offered to her a place to cut out her sinfulness, Cherokee nose job for my lover’s countenance.”
With Empire, brace yourself for a riveting album. You will need to give it a few listens before its complexities unravel to reveal a profound and delightful album. (+words by chris dishman+)