Happy 10th Anniversary to John Frusciante’s eighth studio album The Empyrean, originally released January 20, 2009.
Primarily known as the former guitar wunderkind of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Frusciante has amassed an impressive and eclectic collection of solo recordings that have traversed genre and form, while proving that he is one of the most diverse and creative musicians of our era.
The first stirrings of solo material came in the mid-1990s as he, for the first time, fled the massive success of the Chili Peppers’ 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik and endeavored to become a solo artist, as well as—in his own words—a committed drug addict. A sprawling home-recorded venture into predominantly acoustic experimental ramblings, Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt was Frusciante's first solo effort coming in 1994.
Frusciante's worsening drug dependency and depression was obvious to anyone who heard his debut LP, and it was even more apparent through the hacking coughs and splutters heard on his 1997 follow-up Smile from the Streets You Hold, an album that was recorded and released in order to supply the funds to buy more drugs. Both of these records are hard on the listener and as objects of recorded music, they somewhat fall short. Nonetheless, there is an obvious talent and lyrical darkness at play that, to fully understand Frusciante's evolution as an artist, must be heard and contemplated no matter the quality.
Thankfully, Frusciante didn't end up the way so many talented young artists and musicians do in the fever of drug dependency and depression. To ponder, even for a moment, Frusciante as a mere footnote in rock & roll history is a sad thought.
After getting clean and rejoining the Chili Peppers for their triumphant comeback album Californication in 1998, Frusciante rededicated himself to the band and enjoying the process of touring the record. His next solo outing, To Record Only Water for Ten Days, came in 2001 and was a more contemplative and more complete set of songs that lyrically reflected on the demons that had plagued him during his addiction, coupled with the spiritual and creative rebirth he had endured. From this point onward, a Frusciante solo record was a regular occurrence and the quality of the compositions, lyrics, production and vocal performance only seemed to improve with each stab taken.
Frusciante also worked out a little niche within and outside of the Chili Peppers, his solo material taking the form of the confessional troubadour or balladeer and with that, extending the sound of his mother band from throbbing funk/rap/rock to Beach Boys-esque pop and alt-country hoedowns. Frusciante's influence on the Chili Peppers’ eighth record By The Way (2002), arguably their best and most diverse set of songs up to this point, was substantial and Frusciante's effortless guitar work and exquisite vocal harmonies enveloped the record in a gorgeous Californian warmth.
Throughout his solo endeavors there has been a real sense that Frusciante has continually learned and tested new approaches to playing guitar and utilizing recording techniques. But, his recordings have for the most part stayed within the safer confines of rock music, even if the experimental aspects of some of the music have shifted it momentarily into other genre realms. His use and fluidity with the guitar has been accompanied by flourishes of synth pop and new wave rock. Tiny echoes of what might be flutter over more traditional rock compositions that have always hinted of a more expressive and adventurous artist.
Frusciante once again left the Chili Peppers in 2009 to be replaced by his friend and sometime collaborator Josh Klinghoffer. In this instance, the decision to leave the band was based purely on his need to create music of his own.
The Empyrean was Frusciante's eighth solo record and its release in 2009 marked the final record in which he could be considered a rock performer. His artistic process throughout the 2010s has lent extensively into electronically produced music as witnessed on 2012's PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone, his hip-hop production of Wu Tang-affiliates Black Knights, and synth sonic soundscapes that bear little resemblance to his work as a member of one of the world's biggest rock acts or as a solo artist.
The Empyrean is worth considering as the accumulation of Frusciante's solo work up to this point and a fine example of his work ethic and creative philosophy. However, it should also be considered as the break-off point of his association with the Chili Peppers. Although RHCP bassist Flea provides bass accompaniment throughout the record, this was really Frusciante’s last stand as a performer of rock music.
The album begins with “Before the Beginning,” a nine-minute fest of crashing drums and wailing guitar, a Zeppelin-esque stadium motif played through a bedroom amp. It reeks of rock & roll excess, and in any other hands it would border on MOR guitar doodling. But in Frusciante's hands, it works as a brilliant introduction to the record and his skill as an axeman.
His cover of Tim Buckley and Larry Beckett's timeless “Song to the Siren” does not quite reach the same emotive highs as the original, nor does it transcend This Mortal Coil's ethereal version. It does, however, showcase Frusciante's searing vocal range and one can really see this aspect of his arsenal has evolved into a beautiful and warm voice, becoming his signature as a solo artist.
This is evident on a number of cuts. The quite beautiful “Dark/Light,” a song that begins as a breathy piano ballad before shifting gears and adding a throbbing beat and a gorgeous choir. At over eight minutes long, it could easily outstay its welcome, but it never seems to and upon repeated listens reveals itself to be one of Frusciante’s most expertly crafted songs he has set to record. It’s helped along by a guiding bass line from Flea.
Frusciante’s voice on “One More of Me” begins in a throaty baritone, which sounds somewhat unnatural to his range, but it soon shifts and he launches into a series of immense wails that Zeppelin’s own Robert Plant would surely applaud. Again, the vocal gymnastics are also reminiscent of Buckley’s own vocal highs and lows in his later jazz work.
Because of numerous hints that linger throughout The Empyrean, this is where it might be worth considering John Frusciante and Tim Buckley as dual artists. Both, from the vantage point of more standard approaches (folk, rock), have ventured into experimental and dumbfounding musical directions in a very short space of time. Musical evolution that might work out over a matter of decades for any other artist is usually rendered done and dusted within a few months for these two. Buckley started out as a gentle Sixties troubadour and folk singer before swerving into all kinds of genres.
The record that “Song to the Siren” originally appeared on, 1970's Starsailor, alongside its predecessor Lorca, was Buckley's move into an avant-garde jazz styling and vocal aerobics. This was a two-album diversion from his folk orientated origins before then switching to sexy funk rock. Buckley died in 1975. In the space of nine years he’d released nine records as diverse from each other as you could imagine. Both also have extraordinary vocal range leaping from high notes to low within the same breath.
The Empyrean may not be Frusciante’s best or most original record. In fact, it steals from a number of sources that could indicate a lack of confidence or new ideas. It relies heavily on spiritual themes (as evidenced by song titles “Heaven” and “God”) that Frusciante has always explored and they seem to come to fruition here. It expands on his solo recordings as opposed to widening the scope. Nonetheless, it stands as a testament to a creatively unique individual that since this record was released, has paved a road for himself towards something that truly transcends the idea of a popular artist and popular consumption of music.
The Empyrean makes for a brilliant starting point into the creative world of John Frusciante.