Late last year, Tooth & Nail Records announced several new signings, including one alternative rock band called I Am Empire. They were already making relatively big waves in the independent scene, and their signing to Tooth & Nail only fueled the fire. This year, they've been given their very first headlining tour, and for tourmates, the California rockers chose fellow group Queens Club and fellow independent, California-based rock band, Eden Records' own Blood and Water. Due to the group parting ways, Queens Club ended up cancelling, and they were replaced by T&N newbies, Nine Lashes. They hit up Northern Hills Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, which has become one of Empire's new favorite cities to play in.
Now I'll be honest: I decided I was going to hit up this show when all I knew was that Blood and Water was playing. In the last year or so, they've become one of my favorite unsigned artists, playing a brand of pop punk that finds itself dabbling in ska at times. They released their second full-length album last year, called In Character. They took the stage and got off to a beautiful start with the lead track of In Character, "Sleep It Off." It's a fun rocker with ska-style guitars and a very catchy melody. As one of my favorite tracks from the album, and quite possibly the best way they could've opened, I was glad they started it off. They encouraged the crowd to sing along as they went into the next song, "Gakou," then slowed it down a smidge with "Feeling Better." The guys were having fun on stage and the small crowd had an easy time getting into their music. The following track sounded very unfamiliar to me, but it was another slower song that sounded pretty promising. Lead vocalist Brad Hagmann let the crowd know that it was a brand new song, "Traffic," that was going to be released exclusively on the upcoming Indie Vision Music sampler, Punk Never Dies Vol. 1 (which will be a free download from their site on November 1). One of the guitarists, Matt Hagmann, took the reins on the vocals for the next song, which Matt said was about letting God forgive you, called "I Am Spartacus." The song is another album highlight, followed by yet another highlight, "Sinking." I thought that the band would include their first single, "McGee and Me," but it turned out that "Sinking" was their last song for the evening. Near the end of the song, Brad got a little crazy and jumped down into the crowd during a rocking part while he was singing. He bumped into the dancing kids in the crowd, and held out the microphone in various people's faces for them to sing along (including myself). Blood and Water is a lot of fun to watch and listen to. If you're not familiar with them, but you plan on attending this tour, you're in for a treat. Make sure to pick up a copy of In Character.
As the crew initiated the set changes, I went back to peruse the merch tables and talk to Blood and Water. Before I knew it, Nine Lashes was already on the stage and about ready to go. They started their first song, with a slow build-up that felt like it was probably going to go into a Skillet-like rock session. As the rock hit, I wasn't too far off. They put forth a good deal of energy, but then half the amps ended up going out, and they had to stop the song to fix the problem. A little anti-climactic, but if they didn't, the crowd would've only gotten half a song. You gotta do what you gotta do. When they took care of the problem, they started over again, with the slow build-up into the rock again. When they got to a point in the song where it was just Jeremy Dunn singing without music, they realized some of the amps were out again. So they stopped the song again to try to fix the problem...again. Brad Hagmann came back up to try to keep the crowd's attention while the crew tried to fix the equipment, and then when they got it back up, Nine Lashes started everything all over once more. Slow build-up...rock...no sound problems this time? Good. On with the show. With the sound equipment finally cooperating long enough for the group to play their set, it was time for a rock show. Nine Lashes put forth a pretty good effort, with lots of energy and passion. Since I'm not familiar with their music - as it's not usually the sort of rock that I enjoy listening to - and also due to the fact that their T&N debut album isn't even out yet, I wasn't able to catch any song titles. They did, however, play their current single, "Anthem of the Lonely." They announced to the crowd that on that same day, they had gotten an email saying that the song had gotten to number one on the Christian rock charts. Then they played the song, to which the crowd sang along loudly. They finished up their set and thanked the crowd, and it wasn't long until the night's headliners were up.
I Am Empire played in Topeka earlier in the year, but unfortunately real life beckoned and I had to work instead of go to the show. But everyone I knew that went told me how great they were in a live setting, so this opportunity to see them made me really excited. They came out of the gate running fast with the rocker "Heart Attack." From the first song on, the band was exciting to watch. Their stage presence was incredible, with lots of moving around, attention-getting antics and crazy dancing from frontman Austin Lions. Next up was a song I was familiar with before their signing and the release of their T&N debut, Kings: "You're A Fake!" This was the song that made me get into I Am Empire; it's a solid rock song. They went back to their independent, self-titled album for "Encompass Me," but brought it back to Kings for "Love & Despair." The whole time, I get a real big The Wedding feel from their high-powered rock music, and at the same time, they also bring to mind the band Queen. Yes, Queen. While the two bands have very little in common as far as sound or genre, there are small aspects that made me think of them, namely the charisma of Austin, as well as the beautiful usage of vocal harmonies from time to time. It's not a huge comparison, but I got a little bit of that vibe. "To The Moon" was next, which featured a near-face-melting guitar solo, and lots of yelling and gang vocals. It's quite the rocker. Another familiar song was next on tap, "Elevator," followed by "Driver," which was also from I Am Empire. They tore through "Hammers & Anvils," and finished up their incredible set with a jewel called "Saints & Sinners." And then, with no encore (and no chant for one either, but since there were maybe thirty people in attendance, I didn't expect one), the night was over.
What I loved about this night's show was that, despite the crowd being very small (and unless I'm mistaken, mostly attendees of the church), the bands gave it their all, as if they were playing the most important show of their lives. Mad props to the bands for being so down-to-Earth that they would still put their all into a small show like that. On that note, I'd consider the Kings & Queens Tour to be a success; however, I do still wonder how different the night would have been had Queens Club not broken up and actually been a part of the tour. Though their album released to mediocre reviews and ratings, their sound would've ultimately been a better fit than that of Nine Lashes, given the pop rock/pop punk sounds of Blood and Water and I Am Empire. However, it's good exposure for them as they gear up for their upcoming debut next year, World We View. Blood and Water and I Am Empire make a great pair, so hopefully we'll see more of them touring together. Don't miss this show if you like solid pop rock (and make sure you stop and tell Blood and Water "hi" for me).-- Scott Fryberger, 10/25/11
Blood and Water setlist
1. Sleep It Off
3. Feeling Better
5. I Am Spartacus
I Am Empire setlist
1. Heart Attack
2. You're A Fake!
3. Encompass Me
4. Love & Despair
5. To The Moon
6. The Elevator
8. Hammers & Anvils
9. Saints & Sinners
Blood and Water:
I Am Empire:
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