The opinion that the crater Imagine Dragons have left on the US indie and alternative scene has done far more harm than good is pretty much unanimous at this stage to everyone except the bands who’ve been given the only chance they’d ever get through it. It’s not like an overly percussive, heavily-produced sound would’ve been adopted in droves had it not become a guaranteed money-printer, and while that’s not saying that none of these bands would exist otherwise (there’d certainly be other ways for AJR to profusely out themselves as profit-driven hucksters), now that the sluice gates are barely holding together, it’s given plenty of acts carte blanche to think highly enough of themselves that they actually end up putting out music. It rarely ends well at that, especially when the majority will notch a song or two on the US alternative charts and fall into obscurity once again, but when each one contributes to the unwanted movement of the cultural needle into monogenre mush, it’s hard to not feel tremendously exasperated. And with that, here’s The Federal Empire, who’ve followed the typical tried-and-true method of getting here with their sole climbing hit in I Never Liked Your Friends, but with TV spots, something of a pedigree among their ranks and remixes from Martin Garrix and Sam Feldt already under their belts, there might just be enough there to fool a less-than-discerning listener into thinking that they’re a more worthwhile proposition than most.
But no, that couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, The Federal Empire represent the absolute worst of where this brand of ‘indie’ music has ended up on Road Through Hell, without a single original idea in its head and with what it does have, no way of executing it that doesn’t sound either unmistakably vapid, unbearably boring or unforgivably stupid. There’s not one iota of inspiration in what The Federal Empire are doing, resorting to tying themselves in knots to meet whatever criteria their radio format has laid out for them, and coming out with some of the most useless slop to dare to deem itself as ‘alternative’ to be released this year. There are bands in this vein for whom the greater implications of their success are worse, but there are few who come across as nauseatingly inept as The Federal Empire do, and when that ineptitude is spread across an entire album, it really begins to paint of picture of how deeply the bankruptcy of creativity in this scene actually goes.
Genuinely, there isn’t a single drop of ingenuity across the entirety of Road Through Hell, such is the surface-level application that The Federal Empire have on a sound that’s pretty one-dimensional to begin with. This isn’t rousing or anthemic in anything but the most empty and blank-faced sense, with the bodiless acoustic shuffling of X Ambassadors leading into the limp-wristed indie-folk stomp of The Lumineers and the compression, the overbearing emphasis on loud percussion and the anaemic gang vocals on every single hook that’s become the go-to technique for everyone within this scene. It’s honestly quite alarm how efficiently The Federal Empire tick these boxes without putting anything close to their own spin on things, as they try and crowbar whatever other scavenged elements from among mainstream indie-pop’s other bottom feeders in what’s an uncomfortably clunky and hollow listen. There’s no punch to the saccharine fizz of Bad Habits that wants to cute and quirky but just ends up annoying, and the likes of Good Man and More Than Just Friends, as well as numerous others, only serve to prove how tired the pairing between a rustic, faux-indie veneer and noticeable levels of overproduction is, and how it never actually works. At least, for as adherent to the same formula as I Never Liked Your Friends is, the touches of solidly-integrated synth give it a bit more character, but even then, it’s trudging through the same slog of an indie-pop formula as everything else where virtually nothing is able to cut through effectively.
And because The Federal Empire are totally incapable of leaving the safety of their own bubble for even a millisecond, the writing here is just as bog-standard and predictable in its delusions of importance – both of the self and of the world around it – as ever. The latter is at least easier to laugh at, as The American Dream condenses all the usual valueless pieces of ‘social commentary’ thrown around in indie music and proceeds to reiterate them wholesale, while What Are We Fighting For’s anti-war message feels so non-committal given that there’s no detail to speak of, and yet believes that sampling an address from John F. Kennedy earns it some good will by proxy. It’s all the usual fare of an indie band going way over their own head and not having a clue of how to reasonably execute it all, but it’s whenever The Federal Empire go into relationship songs that the wheels really begin to fall off with supreme haste. There’s already the negging and unearned jealousy that comes with The Way That I Do and More Than Just Friends respectively that never even pretends it’s trying to explore anything but, but particularly in the latter and I Never Liked Your Friends, there’s something that’s so inherently wrong about framing them as happy-clappy singalongs when that’s not what they’re aiming for at all. At least when toxicity in music is leaned into, there’s a primal rage and thrill that can come with it that, if done right, can be enormously compelling and gratifying; with The Federal Empire though, the fear of appearing to have any kind of edge whatsoever means that everything is buffed and sanded back to the point of nothingness. The band themselves might as well state from the off that there’s no greater purpose to Road Through Hell than to get radio play and make money, as all the spoon-feeding of tropes and platitudes is so explicit and staid, and leaves the album permanently stuck in the void of its own nonexistence.
Because, really, there’s no reason for this album to exist. There’s no reason for this whole scene to exist given that every single act that’s come out of it has yielded maybe half a good idea between them, but The Federal Empire lack even the nous to employ whatever that might be. This is a blank canvas upon which a slightly less blank canvas might stand, with no thought into making this their own or trying anything new, and instead with every effort focusing on damage control and ensuring that there’s as much money-making potential to squeeze out of it as possible. There’s no artistic merit to an album like this, and The Federal Empire know it, such is the rate with which they throw their shambling husks of ideas out with the vain hope that familiarity alone will see them become the next in the line of superstars that demonstrably do not deserve that title. If there’s anything just in the world, they won’t get anywhere to that, and they’ll be recognised as the talentless hacks they are much sooner than later.
For fans of: AJR, X Ambassadors, Judah And The Lion
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Road Through Hell’ by The Federal Empire is released on 25th March on Sumerian Records.