It’s been five years since the release of Time is a Machine. Since then, the Kansas City trio has altered their sound, adopted a heavier style, and tightened up production. There’s something here for new and old fans alike. The band has taken their unique “talk music” style and dialed up the distortion. It’s not quite a departure; it’s more an evolution. While it wasn’t the direction I had anticipated, the band proves pretty convincingly why it was the right path to take.
Being Empty : Being Filled had quite the rollout. The lead single, “There’s Money in the Walls,” was released back in July. The band also released four two-track EPs, making almost the entire album available over the course of half a year. It was definitely a fun idea and gave a limited number of fans unique vinyls while waiting for the full release. Prior to the album’s full release, I had only listened to “There’s Money in the Walls,” which sounds like a natural progression from their last record. Thus I was a little surprised with how the first track bursts into action.
The band usually kicks it off with a loud and fast one, with Smith barking his signature heavy hitting lyrics. “Pent Up Genes” is a full-fledged rocker; loud, heavy, and led by a barrage of distorted guitars and powerful drums. It’s like Listener’s take on anthemic rock. It’s dramatic and intense, and it feeds right into the second track. “Little Folded Fingers” doubles down on the heaviness, its intro reminiscent of post-hardcore. The noisy breakdown leading into the second verse is just one of the examples of how the band has become more confident with transitions. Drummer Kris Rochelle showcases his talents as well, with this being one of his strongest songs to date.
“There’s Money in the Walls” was the first track released from the album way back in July. It was one of my favorite songs of 2017, but now it feels a little out of place on the album. Regardless, it’s an incredible song and older fans will recognize its structure as similar to the structure of their older work. Ambient noise feeds Dan’s spoken words, a melancholy arrangement of raw emotion. Their commitment to filling in the gaps sonically work brilliantly here, utilizing background vocals as the song reaches its climax. They continue this on the next track, “Add Blue,” hiding the backing vocals deep in the distortion, creating an atmosphere unlike anything they’ve done before. The chorus gets a little muddled but the rapid-fire delivery of the verses and the comparatively laid-back rock sound makes this the perfect transition.
“I can start over again if I would just let it.”
Some of the strongest tracks are at the tail end of the record. “A Love Letter to Detroit” evokes detailed winter imagery that strongly compliments the narrative of the track. “Manhattan Projects,” with its horn arrangements and barked vocals, is a visceral experience. The vocal arrangement of this track is particularly strong. These tracks echo sentiments of finding yourself and cycles of self-destructive thoughts, a recurring theme throughout the band’s career.
“My thoughts get lost and I think I’m lost for good.”
There are bound to be some misses along the way, though. While the band is very good at what they do, there are some conflicts with the execution of their style, as exposed by a muddled chorus here or wandering verse there. Sometimes, the approach just doesn’t work and it’s hard to find a rhythm. “Shock and Value” is one of those songs, though you can find solace in the closing moments of the track. “Bloodshot/New Love” is another one, despite the intro being a nice callback to their Struggleville sound.
“Home is not a place / It’s where you fill in the blanks.”
The album closes with “Plague Doctor,” the heaviest track on the record. It’s in your face and loud; the perfect bridge to the opener. It takes the post-hardcore vibes of the record and dials it up to 11. We are bombarded with distortion before the track bleeds into a noisy, effect-heavy instrumental break. Dan’s muffled voice speaks to you as if from the back of your mind. The closing moments are borderline cinematic. You get the feeling that this song was designed to be the epic closer for their live sets.
Empty : Filled is just as contemplative and reflective as the rest of their catalog, if not a bit more consistent. The band has mastered crafting songs that are as much for the good days as the bad ones, which can make them difficult to digest. Like staring out the window of a car on a long but familiar drive. It’s an impressive feat for a song to feel both sentimental to the listener and intimate to the songwriter, but it’s a line that Listener walks confidently and frequently.