Steal The Light - The Cat Empire

Two Shoes Records

The Cat Empire is a complicated beastie, never more so than on their 6th studio release, ‘Steal The Light’. Maybe that’s why so many journalists seem to struggle to find the right box to put them in. Silly scribes! Everyone knows cats love all kinds of boxes. Surrounding their performance at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival I heard them called everything from ‘Latin Swing’ to ‘Ska-based’, either of which might be accurate at any given moment. But, by the time it’s logged for further comment, the 6 piece Melbourne band is on to something else entirely, often within the context of the same song. The key to understanding The Cat Empire’s beguiling movements is unveiled on stage. Pan from left to right and you’ll find the Empire horns under the direction of trumpeter/vocalist extraordinaire, Harry James Angus, percussion/turntablist, Jamshid ‘Jumps’ Khadiwala, drummer, Will Hull-Brown, bassist, Ryan Munro and Oliver McGill on piano and organ. Vocalist, percussionist, Felix Riebl shares centre stage duties with Angus. Conspicuous in its absence, especially since the invention of electricity, is a guitar of any kind. No didgeridoo for an Australian bunch either, thank goodness. The instrumental configuration is set in jazz, not rock, and the kind of innovation, improvisation and diversification that implies is what makes them so hard to peg down. Their break-through album (and the name of their own record label), ‘Two Shoes’ was recorded in Havana’s legendary Egrem Studios so Afro-Cuban, Latin jazz plays a big part in their material, but so do other horn-driven idioms like Balkan, Afrobeat, Caribbean – all the kids are in this pool. And really, all this over-intellectualizing flies in the face of the Empire’s true mandate. “In many ways this record is a return to our original aesthetic, a very simple thing; that the music is for dancing and feeling good; and that the beat of the record belongs to all nations. It should make people smile, make people dance. That's all we want.” says Harry Angus. There’s also a duality at play in all their compositions. Harry Angus possesses a golden voice with super-human range. He phrases his words with explosive impact as a trumpeter would do in creating melody lines. His songs can soar dizzyingly to operatic heights. Meanwhile, Felix is the cool cat, almost talking his way through his more groove based numbers. Some of their best work combines both approaches to dynamic effect. Steal The Light opens confidently with what I consider the album’s strongest offering called ‘ Brighter Than Gold’, which alternates between Felix-delivered verses, set to a jazzy shuffle (I swear Jumps pinched the distinctive vocal sample from Bulgarian spinner, Kottarashky or it’s very similar – very evocative) and an astral neo-classical chorus riding on Harry’s mezzo-soprano falsetto. Pick your own favorite moments from what follows on the disc. Steal The Light is beautifully produced and recorded, and crammed with boxes full of interest.