Sound and vision

Empty Beds

Progressive punks? Shawn Palomares, Levi Nelson and Michael Maxwell

Progressive punks? Shawn Palomares, Levi Nelson and Michael Maxwell

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A single image can contain several different meanings. Depending on the observer, or the situation, a gun could represent danger or safety. A swastika could be a symbol of hate, or a sign of good fortune and well-being. A flag could mean freedom to those who pledge it allegiance, or oppression to those who have felt its nation’s fire.

Empty Beds is a name that evokes multiple interpretations. It began as a relatively meaningless phrase, a reference to an image used by an earlier incarnation of the band. To drummer/vocalist Michael Maxwell, it struck him as emotionally resonant.

“I thought, that sounds pretty sad. Let’s roll with it,” said Maxwell. “We’ll come up with a meaning later.”

Maxwell’s current association with the name is the feeling of anxiety he feels when lying in a bed, thinking. The phrase reminds him of losing sleep, due to his incessant thoughts, and a fear of being powerless to manifest them.

To guitarist/vocalist Levi Nelson, the band name carries political connotations.

“In prisons, especially corporate-owned prisons, they charge our government for having empty beds,” said Nelson. “We pay more taxes if there’s less people in prison.”

The Rorschach test of the name is equally applicable to the themes explored through the band’s lyrics. Many Empty Beds songs reach to deeply personal, private places in the band members’ innermost thoughts and feelings. Other songs are about the nature of power; who has it, who misuses it, and who it should belong to.

Thematic leaps are accompanied by jarring shifts in tempo, venturing from heavy, sludgy rhythms, to frantic punk beats, and then to progressive rock and jazz explorations, often within a single song. Lyrics are delivered in paragraphs, shouted aloud in an indignant roar, like a protester projecting his voice to read a piece of prose above the rabble.

Empty Beds evolved from a progressive metal outfit, and its musicians make use of that influence. But there’s also a distinctly emo flavor to the music. If that combination of genres conjures the image of someone whose dyed black hair covers one eye, nose pierced and ears gauged, with skin tight pants, Empty Beds will surely disappoint. A preferred genre tag used by Maxwell is ’progressive punk,’ a style that blends the simplicity and fury of punk with the intricate virtuosity of progressive music.

Another clue into the origin of Empty Beds’ unique sound is Maxwell’s background in orchestra. As a violinist, he says he approaches the drums from the standpoint of a violin in an orchestra.

“I don’t go to an instrument to do the instrument itself—I’m thinking more of how to follow and build with everything else,” said Maxwell. “In orchestra, certain parts come through, others fall back more. I apply a lot of that to drums.”

Following the recent release of their first full-length album, Exist Again, the trio is hard at work on a conceptual release titled Sundowner. The project tells the story of the political and personal struggles on an alternate Earth. In the album’s reality, an exodus from the planet took place a century ago, when a group of pessimistic astronauts deemed the world doomed, and took their bets on outer space. Society at large demonized the emigrants for abandoning the planet, thus discouraging any copycats. It’s a story that tackles oppression, environmental collapse and war, weaving in personal stories as the plot develops. It’s a fictional world, but the band hopes the message will be relevant to the current and future geopolitical landscape.

“For us to become super advanced, there would have to be no war at all,” said Nelson. “War always regresses our society.”