Changing the Course of Empire

Local favorite emerges from the commercial doldrums

Chad Lovell, drummer for Course of Empire, has a barely noticeable habit: Whenever he discusses the history of his band, he tends to laugh a lot--as a person will when later recounting a terrifying or trying experience. You can't really blame him. After a host of troubles--including its record company turning turtle on the very day that the band received accolades from Redbeard, the influential DJ at rock station KTXQ (102.1 FM)--the longtime local rock band has released its third album, Telepathic Last Words.

During the early '90s and the Second or Possibly Third Great Wave of Dallas band signings, when COE got on board with Zoo Records, it became a hometown success story. The band's Zoo tenure, however, wasn't all that peachy. "I can't say that I hate them," Lovell allows by phone from COE's Dallas studio. "I just think they didn't know how to handle us." The band put out Initiation on Zoo in 1994, and Zoo reissued the group's self-titled 1991 release that appeared on Allen Restropo's local Carpe Diem imprint. The group was waiting for Telepathic to appear in the summer of 1996 when it stopped by KTXQ for a little pre-release schmoozing and got Redbeard's encouraging feedback.

Later that day, COE was informed of Zoo's folding. "It was a...um, shock," Lovell admits, bursting into laughter, as if releasing the strain of long-ago trauma.

The group went right back out, shopping itself to labels and playing showcases. It had an unreleased album to its name, but reacquiring the rights to it from the now-defunct Zoo would take time. "When all the lawyers' dust had settled," Lovell says, "It had been a year." To make matters worse, the group found themselves in an unusual bind when it came to playing live: If they appeared too often, COE's audience might be utterly familiar with the songs on the new album long before it came out. Although the band still kept busy, people in Dallas wondered what had become of them.

"People just aren't that aware of what's out there," Lovell complains. "We're playing out there, but it's outta sight, outta mind. When we were touring around for Initiation, we were kicking butt in all these other markets, but since you didn't hear us on Dallas radio, everybody thought we vanished."

The band decided to go with a smaller label, TVT. "We liked them the most," Lovell says. "They showed the most interest in us early, and they seemed to understand what we were trying to do." One of the things the band and its new label agreed on was the need to tweak some aspects of Telepathic. "We wanted to change up the flow of the album, record some new songs, do a little bit of remixing, and just generally fix some things that we felt were problematic on the first [Zoo] version," Lovell says.

"Automatic Writing #17" is one of the songs that's new on the album, written specifically for the TVT release. The band also added a reworking of "Coming of the Century," off of their Carpe Diem debut.

"That's on there as a kind of reaffirmation for us," Lovell says of the old song. "Who'd have thought that we'd be here--still as a band, even--two years before the end of the century?" Indeed, the band's persistent popularity is a tribute to the appeal of their music, all the more impressive in light of the lower profile they've had to maintain.

"We've only released three albums in eight years," Lovell notes with another bout of laughter. "That's probably not so productive, but a lot of the reasons for the delay weren't our fault. It's not going to happen like that at TVT, however. I have a feeling that we'll be popping another one out for them here within a year, at least."

Telepathic Last Words has been worth the wait. COE has always been a rock band--a "hard" rock band, if that's the terminology you want to use--and they're still based on the heroic old-school, Led Zep-style principal of bigness: of sound, of song, of ambition. The band's two drummers (for a change) understand the potential of their twinned rigs and work up a juggernaut momentum ("Coming of the Century") powered by rhythms that somehow seem to be both complex and essential. The tunes on Telepathic can change form and mood widely within a single song--"59 Minutes" goes from rocker to subdued, subcontinental drum clinic almost before you notice. When you trace the movements within a song on Telepathic, the tune can sometimes seem like small orchestral pieces.

Vocalist Mike Graff meets the listener with the force and character that you'd expect from a singer who lacks a guitar to hide behind. Guitars crash and fall around him, strings ringing, and there is a definite weight imparted, whether it's wickedly rolling ( "New Maps") or dreamily ethereal (their remake of the old starndard "Blue Moon."). The group's tendency toward minor keys and almost Middle Eastern-sounding melodies is more developed, and the album is full of not-so-obvious loops, samples, and sonic tricks. Rock bands are beginning to borrow more and more from electronica, often in clumsy attempts to boost both their image and their sales. Usually they end up looking like idiots. Course of Empire, however, pulls it off. Their songs are well written, densely textured and surprising enough, to simply stand on their own. They are of this time, so they sound like this.

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