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Empathy Test is an independent London (UK) based electronic pop band formed in January 2013 by childhood friends Isaac Howlett (vocals, songwriting) and Adam Relf (composition, production). Over the course of a year, the pair wrote, recorded and produced four original compositions, which would be self-released digitally as the Losing Touch EP in February 2014.
The title track and lead single, Losing Touch, caught the attention of Mark Roberts of Brooklyn (US) based record label, Stars & Letters Records. Roberts expressed an interest in releasing the band’s material and, spurred on by this early affirmation, Empathy Test recorded a further four tracks and sent them over for his approval. A deal was signed in April 2014, with a release date for the EP, Throwing Stones, scheduled for December of the same year.
Losing Touch, which has now had over 900,000 views on YouTube and over 4.8m plays on Spotify (if you include the remastered version), also garnered attention when it was featured in a viral video produced for Liverpool Football Club by UK artist and animator Richard Swarbrick. Swarbrick’s animated video clocked up over 264,000 views on YouTube and was shown on Liverpool FC’s official TV channel.
Swarbrick went on to use a second Empathy Test track, Kirrilee, in another viral animated video, Cats of YouTube, which received over 183,000 views, and a third, Last Night on Earth, in a series of basketball animations commissioned by ESPN. Kirrilee also brought the band further attention in the US when it became the official soundtrack to a Bill Murray-inspired art fair, The Murray Affair.
In September 2014, Empathy Test gave their first live performance, a self-booked headline show at The Sebright Arms in London. The band performed as a duo, with both Isaac and Adam performing on keys. Fans had travelled from as far afield as Germany and Sweden, and the 120 capacity venue was just shy of full.
The Sebright Arms show also earned the band their first live review, from Louder Than War, who described the event as follows: “in front of a packed room of grinning appreciative people it requires noting just how marvellous this band are and how this band with the synths and laptop have made this music lark look very ******* easy”.
Also in attendance was Thomas Görnert, co-founder of one of the biggest Alternative/Gothic music festivals in the world, Wave Gotik Treffen. Having flown from Germany to attend the concert, Görnert booked Empathy Test to perform at the 2015 event, directly after their performance.
On 22nd September 2014, an instrumental version of new track Here is the Place previewed as the soundtrack to a video entitled The Next Generation Asks World Leaders at UN: Why Not Act on Climate Change?. The short film was produced by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and was shown in a presentation at the United Nations.
A week later, the title track from the Throwing Stones EP premiered on Clash Music. Robin Murray described it as “gorgeous, sumptuous future pop” with “nods towards Depeche Mode” and “21st century producers such as Purity Ring”. Here is the Place then premiered via KCRW on 3rd November, with comparisons to M83, Purity Ring and Churches, and praise for “a big dramatic sound that swoons ecstatically between the nostalgic and immediate”.
EP title track Throwing Stones was also Record of the Week on BBC Introducing and the band were interviewed for the show, which was broadcast on 1st November 2014. BBC Introducing Presenter Abbie McCarthy said she was "loving it more with every listen".
Empathy Test gave their first international performance at Reithalle Strasse E in Dresden, Germany, on 6th December 2014, having been personally invited by the club’s owner, Robert Grund. Grund was fundamental to the band’s growth on the international scene, playing the band’s music to industry contacts that visited his club and introducing the band to Jan Winterfeld of Pluswelt Promotions who would later become the band’s booking agent.
On December 9th 2014, the Throwing Stones EP was released by Stars & Letters Records, earning the band a 10/10 review on Swedish alternative music website Brutal Resonance. Reviewer Kjetil Haugen proclaimed: “there is no doubt in my mind that this is a perfect release”. The band were also featured in Idolator’s 14 Under the Radar Synth Pop Acts We Loved in 2014, along with Salt Ashes and Kid Moxie.
In March 2015, Here is the Place featured in Season 4 of MTV’s popular reality TV show Catfish, bringing the band further exposure, particularly in North America.
Empathy Test added drummer Adam Casey to their live line-up ahead of an appearance at Hard Rock Cafe London’s Battle of the Bands in April 2015 and a Bombay Bicycle Club support show in May, before heading to Wave Gotik Treffen in Germany on 23rd May 2015, where they performed to over a thousand people. In the 30 minutes following the performance, the band sold all of the 200 self-produced CDs they had brought with them.
Joining forces with fellow London-based Synth Pop band Vivien Glass (now Strange Eyes), Empathy Test crowdfunded and booked a successful ten date co-headline UK tour over the summer with keyboard player Liza Sweeney standing in for founder member Adam Relf. The tour was punctuated by a headline show in Oslo (Norway) and appearances at Kopparberg Urban Forest and SOS festivals in London, Create Festival in Kent, and BAS Festival (discontinued) in Basildon, Essex, the birthplace of Depeche Mode.
It was at BAS Festival that they met Jan Winterfeld of Pluswelt Promotions for the first time. Impressed by their performance, he offered the band a place on a European tour with Mesh the following year (2016).
A third Empathy Test EP, featuring remixed tracks from the Throwing Stones EP was scheduled for a release via Stars & Letters Records in August 2015. Throwing Stones Remixed featured a Thomas Datt remix of Here is the Place which was the first track to premiere, courtesy of Earmilk, who praised Empathy Test’s “emotional electronic music with a depth in its measure”.
Datt’s remix was later picked up by UK Trance DJ Solarstone, who re-released a dub mix of it on Pure Trance Volume 4, in November 2015. Minuit Machine provided their take on Throwing Stones, which premiered on PopMatters and the Aeon Rings remix of the same track later premiered on Berlin based website, Kaltblut.
During the promotional campaign for Throwing Stones Remixed, the band reached a mutual agreement to part company with Stars & Letters Records as Mark Roberts, who had begun working on his debut album as We Are Temporary, felt he was no longer able to provide the level of support Empathy Test required. Isaac completed the PR campaign himself and, like Empathy Test’s first EP and all releases since, Throwing Stones Remixed was self-released.
Empathy Test rounded off 2015 with a headline slot at Riba Rocks festival in Spain and support shows in London with The Japanese House (reviewed here) at Camden Barfly and Summer Heart at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen. In 3rd October, Empathy Test returned to Dresden, Germany, for a headline show at Reithalle Strasse E. Jan Winterfeld was in attendance and after the show he asked to become Empathy Test’s booking agent in Europe. It was also the first time they met David Leisser, who impressed the pair with his drumming for the support band that night, Those Goddam Hippies.
The band reached an agreement with Jan Winterfeld and in April 2016, Pluswelt booked Empathy Test to perform two shows in support of German Synth Pop veterans DE/VISION in Leipzig and Berlin. Over the course of the year, the band also supported LCMDF (Sweden) and Avec Sans (UK) in London.
To coincide with their first European tour opening for Mesh (UK), Empathy Test self-released a new double a-side single, Demons / Seeing Stars, in September 2016, which featured two of what would become their most popular tracks to date. Released via digital, CD and on (7” picture disc) vinyl for the first time, the band quickly sold the entire run of 500 CDs and 300 picture discs. The CDs featured a Witch House remix of Demons by Sidewalks and Skeletons, who had supported Empathy Test on their UK tour in 2015, and a Deep House remix of Seeing Stars by MNYNMS.
Demons was ‘Track of the Day’ on XS Noize, who described it as “a stunning coupling of Relf’s ethereal atmospherics on synth and Howlett’s distinctive, perfect aching vocal”.
Prior to the two-week European tour, Adam Casey left the band due to the growing level of commitment required. At the same time, founder member Adam Relf decided touring was also not something he had time for. Empathy Test recruited drummer Christina Lopez and keyboard player Jacob Ferguson-Lobo via adverts on Gumtree.
Main support on the Mesh tour was Industrial Pop act Aesthetic Perfection. After two shows, frontman Daniel Graves asked Empathy Test to tour the USA with him, something that would finally become a reality in 2019.
The band rounded off 2016 with three German shows; two in support of VNV Nation and a second headline show at Reithalle Strasse E in Dresden, Germany. VNV Nation’s frontman Ronan Harris described Empathy Test as “the solution to most of the world’s problems” as shown here in Empathy Test's December 2016 video tour diary.
In January 2017, Empathy Test performed at Planet Myer Day in Leipzig, Germany, and in Denmark (a support slot for Mesh) and Sweden (Electronic Winter Festival) for the first time. In February 2017, Empathy Test released a second single, By My Side. The b-side, Vampire Town, proved more popular than the A-side, and premiered on The Line of Best Fit, who said it “wouldn’t sound out of place snaking into the soundtrack of Netflix series Stranger Things”.
A third single, Bare My Soul, premiered on Clash and was released in April 2017, to coincide with a second European tour, which included four dates opening for Aesthetic Perfection and a further nine as main support for Mesh. Weeks before the tour, keyboard player Jacob Ferguson-Lobo left to concentrate on his own music (he now plays full time with GeeJay) and was quickly replaced with Samuel Winter-Quick.
Buoyed by the success of the singles and two European tours, where they performed to audiences of 400-1,000 people a night, Empathy Test began planning the self-release of their debut album. One album quickly became two albums, when the band were unable to decide which songs to put on the album and which to leave off.
Meanwhile, the band clocked up performances at Liverpool Sound City (UK), Amphi Festival (Germany), VNV Nation’s Unter dem Himmel (Germany), Infest Festival (UK), NCN Festival (Germany) and The Electric Dreams Weekender (UK) where they performed alongside ‘80s Synth Pop legends such as The Human League and Blancmange.
The Losing Touch (Remastered) and Safe From Harm albums were self-released via crowdfunding website PledgeMusic on 17th November 2017. The PledgeMusic project was a huge success, ending 661% funded, and the two albums were released in November 2017 via digital, CD and 12” vinyl formats. To date, the band has sold 1,500+ copies of each album on CD and 600+ copies of each 12” vinyl.
Brutal Resonance gave both albums a 10/10 review, while Elektroskull gave Safe from Harm 9/10 and Losing Touch Remastered 10/10. Empathy Test performed both albums in their entirety at their sold out album launch party at Zigfrid von Underbelly in London, with Synthwave artist Nina supporting, before the band took off on their first headline tour of Germany in December. Two of the six shows, in Hannover and Berlin, also sold out.
In March 2018, Empathy Test embarked on a second UK tour, this time as main support for Covenant (Sweden) with their own headline shows in between. In April, the band performed in Russia for the first time, supporting DE/VISION in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg (full fan made video here) before performing at summer festivals in Germany (Plage Noire), Sweden (Subkultfestivalen) and Canada (Terminus), the latter being their first show in North America.
In May, Losing Touch again brought Empathy Test international attention, this time in Latin America and Spain, when it appeared in two separate episodes of Spanish language Netflix show Luis Miguel, a biopic of the life of ‘80s Mexican superstar singer. Suddenly, Empathy Test had 14,000 Spotify listeners in Mexico. The USA at this point, was on 10,000.
In October 2018, Empathy Test performed in Poland for the first time, at Warsaw Dark Electro Festival with And One, She Past Away and Agent Side Grinder, before embarking on a second, more ambitious tour of Germany in support of new double a-side single Holy Rivers / Incubation Song, which they released on 31st October.
The EP premiered on XS Noize, who said: “it’s the contrast between uplifting beats and heart-rending lyrics that create a perfect melancholy, proving time and time again Empathy Test’s talent for making electro-pop music with depth, meaning and feeling”. Clash meanwhile, praised the new songs’ “shimmering synths, glacial electronics, and heartrending vocals”.
In November 2018, legendary '80s singer and DJ Boy George heard Empathy Test's music via Rusty Egan's internet radio show. He tweeted a video of himself (later deleted) dancing to Losing Touch and on November 30th, he tweeted a link to Empathy Tests's Safe From Harm album on YouTube, saying simply, "this is a musical orgasm".
In January 2019, Pirate Studios invited Empathy Test to their South London studio to perform a live session which was streamed live, worldwide, via their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages. Later in the month, the band supported VNV Nation on their seven date Noire tour of the UK, before heading to Germany with Covenant for 10 dates of their Fieldworks tour, in February and March.
In April 2019, Empathy Test headlined Artefaktor Radio Live at Elektrowerks in London. In May, they performed in Barcelona and Madrid for the first time, once again as main support for VNV Nation.
On 8th June, Empathy Test returned to Wave Gotik Treffen for a second time, with Elliott Berlin of Aesthetic Perfection / Telemark standing in on keyboards. The 1,200 capacity venue was full and some fans were turned away. Meanwhile, the band broke all their previous records for merchandise sales at a single performance, taking over $2,000.
On 11th June, Culture Club's Boy George was again tweeting his love for the band, this time sharing a link to Empathy Test's Losing Touch saying simply "Love this @empathytest".
A new single, Empty Handed, was released June 17th, to coincide with a two week, co-headline UK tour with Canadian Post Punk band Actors. Empty Handed was praised by Fresh on the Net for its "slick, polished beats and lyrics full of heartache and emotion".
During the June UK tour, keyboard player Samuel Winter-Quick, who had been with the band for two years, decided he had had enough of touring and left the band midway through the tour. Elliott Berlin, who had been employed as Empathy Test's live sound engineer on the Actors tour, again stepped in temporarily as keyboard player.
In August 2019, Empathy Test performed for the first time at M'era Luna in Germany and W-Fest in Belgium, with Elliott Berlin on keyboards. They then embarked on their first tour of North America as main support for Aesthetic Perfection, in early September. USA Synthwave / Witch House producer Angel Metro filled in on keyboards for the entire six week tour.
Before the band went to North America, a chance connection on Facebook put them in touch with singer and synth player Oliver Marson. Oliver had recently put out his own '80s inspired synth track, and had been listening to Empathy Test on Spotify. He messaged Isaac to say how much he had enjoyed the tracks and Isaac asked him if he played keyboards.
A week or so later, Oliver was invited to meet the rest of the band at the Hen & Chickens Theatre Pub in Highbury & Islington, where they have conducted all their business meetings since 2015. From that moment, Oliver was essentially in the band. They met with him for one rehearsal before the US tour, at New Rose Studios in Camden. While Isaac and Christina toured North America, Marson learnt 13-14 tracks in preparation for their return.
Isaac and Christina Lopez returned from America on 22nd October and went directly to a second rehearsal with Oliver Marson, before flying out to Germany the next day. Empathy Test then headlined shows in Braunschweig, Nuremburg, Rüsselsheim and Hamburg, before appearing at Pluswelt's 20th anniversary festival in Oberhausen and Berlin.
Writing for German website Reflections of Darkness, Nastja Iz wrote that the venue in Hamburg, Bahnof Pauli, "was packed, and the excitement of the audience was noticeable way before the band came on stage" and that the performance was "as beautiful as expected".
Empathy Test rounded off a very busy 2019 with a headline homecoming show at O2 Academy Islington on 16th November before appearing at Electrixmas Festival in Malmö, Sweden on December 7th, and headlining A Not So Silent Night in Keighley (UK) on 15th December.
Empathy Test kicked off 2020 with a headline set at Owls 'n' Bats festival in Detmold, Germany. In February, the band returned to Germany for another festival performance, this time at E-Only Festival in Leipzig, with Remi Garrier standing in for Christina Lopez on drums. Despite some technical issues, the band again put in a strong performance.
A September 2020 headline German tour with support from The Foreign Resort, (Netherlands), was announced immediately after the E-Only Festival set.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the band began recording third album, Monsters, with non-performing founder member, Adam Relf. Monsters took its name from a track written by the performing members during a sound check in Hamburg on 31st October, 2019. An iPhone recording of said track formed the basis for the sound of the new record, with its thunderous live acoustic drum sound and organic sounding synths.
Christina Lopez recorded live drum parts for the new record for the first time, writing the beat for Monsters (the track) and elsewhere performing and expanding upon demoed beats written by Adam Relf. Meanwhile, Oliver Marson wrote synth parts for new tracks Making Worlds, Skin and Love Moves.
On 1st March 2020, the official Indiegogo crowd funder for the Monsters album began, with a target of £4,000 in order to fund the release. This was the same target set for releasing the two albums in 2017, but Isaac wanted to see how quickly this target could be beaten second time around. It was certainly an eye-opener; in 2017, it took approximately 10 hours for the band to reach that target on PledgeMusic. This time, it took just 20 minutes for the band to hit £4,000. A few days later, the Indiegogo project reached £16,000.
On 6th March, Empathy Test flew to Stockholm, Sweden. It was the band's first show in the city and a headline one. What they didn't know, was that it would also be the last time they would play together, or even see each other, for over six months. Blissfully unaware, they enjoyed one of their best performances ever, running way beyond their prepared set list, taking requests from the audience and even giving a short preview of future single and album title track, Monsters. The set can be viewed in its entirety in this fan-made video.
On 8th April 20202, Empathy Test received an email from Stephen Moss of Manchester (UK) based booking agency Echelon Talent Agency about the possibility of working together. Echelon was handling the booking for a large number of acts in a wide range of genres. Of particular interest to Empathy Test was the presence of some big Synthwave names on Echelon's roster, such as LeBrock, Daniel Deluxe and Magic Sword.
Although the band were happy with the work Jan Winterfeld of Pluswelt had done over the previous four years, they felt that their progress had been somewhat Germany-centric. Elsewhere, particularly in the UK, they had not see the same career progression they had in Germany. A mutually acceptable deal was struck between the three parties where Jan would continue to book the band in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, while Stephen Moss would takeover the UK and the rest of Europe.
Covid-19 then caused a national lockdown that left all the members of the band bar Isaac and Adam, who were by this time living just 10 minutes apart, isolating in different parts of London. For a moment, it seemed like the crowd funder was over, but little by little the money continued to trickle in and eventually the band beat their 2017 total of £26,000 with a little over £27,000. It's worth remembering of course, that the 2017 crowd funder was for two albums; this was for just one.
The first pressing of 300 black vinyl sold out before the album was even released, something which had not happened before and showed how confident the band's audience was that the forthcoming album would be worth owning. The red vinyl also flew off the shelves, prompting Empathy Test to commission a third run of neon green vinyl. Sequestered at home for the foreseeable future and with not much else to do, Isaac decided to once again deal with the mammoth task of sending out all the orders, singlehandedly, processing over a thousand orders in approximately three weeks.
A radio edit of Monsters was released as a digital-only single on the 24th April, 2020 and was given away as a free download on the band's Bandcamp page. While some electronic purists were dismayed by the inclusion of acoustic drums, the overall response was overwhelmingly good. The track premiered on PopMatters, who described it as sounding "absolutely enormous. Driven by thundering drums and layers of clean, analogue synths, the band somehow sounds both thrillingly expansive and unnervingly claustrophobic".
On May 3rd, Monsters (the track) was chosen as "Track of the Day" by Little Indie Blogs. Meanwhile, Backseat Mafia said that the track had "such a stadium filling vibe it would be criminal if this band – simply on the strength of this song – didn’t go on to fulfil this destiny". Czech Republic's Sanctuary, who would invite the band to play their festival Prague Gothic Treffen the following year, also featured the track, and Synthpop Fanatic added it to their "10 Best Synthpop Songs of April 2020". XS Noize said the track saw the band "at the height of their powers, with liberal doses of dark electronic atmospherics, Chrisy’s [Christina Lopez] extraordinarily thunderous percussion and a lyric which deals head-on with the modern-day curse of anxiety and loneliness".
May 2020 saw the release of Empathy Test's first ever music video, which was filmed in London with award winning director Calum Macdiarmid, in August 2019. The video had originally been shot for another track, Empty Handed, but when the band saw the results they decided that the video didn't work for that track. Adam declared that either the video needed to be completely re-cut, or the only option was for the band to write and record a new track which would work with the footage. In January 2020, Isaac had replaced the audio of the video with the iPhone demo of Monsters and it had worked almost perfectly.
The Monsters music video premiered via Earmilk on 7th May, two weeks before the album. Earmilk described it as "a masterpiece in provocative imagery". Again, public reactions were mostly full of praise, but a few individuals were confused and shocked by the sci-fi horror-esque content, with one YouTube comment calling it "a disgusting piece of shit", much to the band and director's delight. The video was also nominated for a Berlin Music Video Award in the "most bizarre" category. The video was included in Electrozombies' "Best Synth Pop Music Videos 2020" and Synthpop Fanatic's "10 Best Synthpop Music Videos of 2020".
As well as the previously announced German tour, the band also had UK (May) and American (October) tours almost ready to announce. However, it quickly became apparent that neither tour was viable under the current conditions. The UK tour was pencilled in for November and then abandoned completely, while the USA tour was postponed indefinitely. The German tour was moved to January 2021 but eventually had to be put back again.
It was also suggested by Quite Great, the PR company running the band's album release campaign, that the release of Monsters (the album) be postponed as well, because the only thing anyone was talking about at that moment in time was Covid. However, Isaac said that the band had promised the fans an album and that now was as good a time as any to release, when they had a captive audience stuck at home bored and thirsting for new music. It's worth noting that the majority of the press was actually secured by Isaac.
Monsters (the album) was released on 22nd May 2020 to much fanfare. Long time supporters Brutal Resonance gave the album 9/10, as did Release Magazine, Czech Republic's Sanctuary, and the Ukrainian Gothic Portal. Sideline gave it 8/10, while Altvenger noted that Christina Lopez's drums added "attitude and power", praising Isaac's "hauntingly melancholic vocal deliveries" and the album's "beautifully constructed choruses" and "darker edge". ReGen Magazine praised its "production value, lyrics, and overall musicianship". Swedish website Hymn (in Swedish) also praised Chrisy's drumming, Isaac's vocals, and the "timelessly melancholy melodies", while Synthpop Fanatic included it at number one in their rundown of their "Best Synthpop Albums of 2020...So Far".
Possibly the best review of the album however, was one of the first, which came from USA's Sounds and Shadows. The in-depth feature was written by three members of the Sounds and Shadows team, editor Ken Magerman describing it as "powerful magic", while his colleagues Damien and Katy said they were "hooked on this record within seconds" and that it was "a synthwave banger from the first smash on the drums". By the end of the year, Monsters found itself in Sound and Shadows, The Periodic Table of Synthpop and the Electricity Club's best albums of the year lists, and inexplicably, in the best albums of the year on NoCleanSinging.com, showing it had an appeal beyond the Synthpop and Darkwave scenes.
Interestingly, it was album track Fear of Disappearing which came in at number 3 in Synthpop Fanatic's 100 Best Synthpop Songs of 2020. Elsewhere, Empty Handed made it into Magnetic Magazine's "15 Best Synth Tracks of June 2020". Magnetic Magazine praised the band's ability to "break free of the mold and apply a continuously fresh perspective to dark synthpop". "The scene", they wrote, "could use more Empathy Tests".
Releasing an album during a global pandemic proved a mixed blessing for Empathy Test. While the critically and commercially successful release brought in the much needed funding to keep the band afloat, Isaac in particular found that without the ability to tour the album, the buzz surrounding Monsters seemed to fizzle out after a few months. As he later stated in an interview with Reflections of Darkness, "inevitably, the buzz from the album started to die out, and without any touring to keep it alive, it soon began to feel like the Monsters was going to sink without a trace".
However, the band's German booking agent, Jan Winterfeld, had, with the help of Kulttempel Oberhausen, secured the use of a circus tent (capacity of 1,000) in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, which they believed could hold 300 while still following new Covid -19 social distancing rules. Empathy Test was booked for a headline show as part of the resultant Konzertsommer Im Reviere 2020. Jan Winterfeld then booked a number of dates, mostly outdoor events in Germany with one date in Switzerland, where Covid restrictions were not so prohibitive.
In August 2020, as the UK lockdown was eased for the first time, Isaac, Chrisy and Oliver began rehearsing the new album tracks at Chrisy's practice space near Finsbury Park, London, for the first time since the album's May 22nd release. The band struggled initially, after so long without playing together, but soon found their feet. On 28th August, they set off on the five date "Socially Distant Tour" of Germany and Switzerland with Christina Lopez on drums, Oliver Marson on keyboards, and Elliott Berlin on the sound desk.
The tour began in the circus tent in Gelsenkirchen, with Hamburg's SONO supporting. Reflections of Darkness's Nastja Iz was there to witness Empathy Test's return to the stage. She wrote: "To hear all the songs form ‘Monsters’ live was pure magic. Empathy Test create with their music an enchanting bubble that you can hide inside".
Gelsenkirchen was followed by an indoor show at OXIL in Zofingen, Switzerland, a rainy evening at Schrødingers Open Air in Hamburg, Germany, another performance at Reithalle Strasse E in Dresden and finally, a storming slot at the NCN 20202 Special, where the audience had to be reminded afterwards, that dancing was not allowed.
Reflections of Darkness were again in attendance, but this time it was Eva Lhum on writing duties. She described "the whole gig" as having "a wonderful enthusiastic feeling - on the stage as well as in the audience. A driving and exciting energy". Empathy Test was "truly an exceptional band," she continued, "whose gig left me with a most wonderful and positive feeling. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the postponed ‘Monsters’-tour can take place next January and February".
A slew of new Covid-19 restrictions were introduced in Germany and much of Europe in early 2021 which meant another blow to Empathy Test's touring schedule. The German Monsters tour was again postponed, and this time the dates were put back to, and spread throughout, 2022. Isaac concentrated on building his new life in Linz, Austria, where he had moved in August 2020, while the rest of the band also concentrated on other things, back in London.
On April 2nd 2021, Empathy Test met briefly in London to take part in a live streamed headline concert. The concert was hosted by Hotel Radio, at The Camden Underworld, where the Monsters album launch had been scheduled to take place the previous May. The online concert was watched live by over 200 paying fans and raised some much needed funds for the band. A track from the performance, Holy Rivers, was also donated to the online festival of the Gothic clothing label, Gothicat Festival No.6.
At the beginning of October 2021, Spanish actress Ester Exposito, who starred in the Netflix show Elite, personally requested that Empathy test's song Losing Touch be used as the soundtrack for a short film inspired by early '90s Dolce & Gabbana advertisements, in which she modelled D&G clothing by the pool, with a number of scantily clad male models. The video was shared via Ester's Instagram account, where it has been watched over 11 million times and garnered 4,000+ comments. Fashion Gone Rogue Magazine described Losing Touch as "the perfect accompaniment" to the sensual imagery.
In October 2021, the band were booked to play at a new festival, Eastside Open Air in Halle, Germany, which was set up by Jan Winterfeld, Empathy Test's German booking agent. The day after, the band was also booked as a headline act at Prague Gothic Treffen in Czech Republic. An interview with Isaac was published by Sanctuary on 8th October 2021, where he discussed "the aftermath of Covid and Brexit, claustrophobia, and positioning [Empathy Test] between [music] scenes", found the Empathy Test frontman "cautious but optimistic". He was right to be cautious; Eastside Open Air was then postponed until July 2022.
Faced with the huge costs of providing multiple Covid tests for both UK band members to fly over for Prague Gothic Treffen (PGT) and back again, then back again the next weekend for two shows supporting DE/VISION, Christina Lopez suggested the band find a drummer in Germany or Austria to fill in for her, while she took some other drumming work she had been offered in the UK.
Isaac contacted Austrian drummer David Leisser, who had previously played drums for Those Goddam Hippies, a British/Austrian band that had supported Empathy Test in Dresden, way back in 2015. After a spell in London working fulltime as a session drummer, David had returned to Vienna after Covid-19 decimated his schedule, and was available for drum work.
David Leisser learned 16 Empathy Test tracks in just 10 days, and when the band met to rehearse at Kapu in Linz a couple of days before PGT, he played them all perfectly, and seemingly without error. Indeed, it seemed like Isaac and Oliver were in more need of the rehearsals than David.
Oliver Marson stayed at Isaac's apartment in Linz while rehearsing for PGT, during which time the pair recorded an improvised acoustic set for StayInfest - an online edition of the annual alternative Infest music festival in Sheffield, UK. The 25 minute set featured Fear of Disappearing, Skin, Doubts, a medley of Here is the Place and Hope for Me and Stop. The performance was broadcast on the same day as the band performed in Prague.
Reflections of Darkness seemed to be everywhere Empathy Test was in 2020 and 2021, with reporter Karo Kratochwil reviewing their performance at Prague Gothic Treffen. "The show in Prague," she wrote, "was one of the first to see the band playing live again, and I am happy to inform they are in excellent shape".
"Isaac," Karo continued, "was like a sparkling ball of energy: dancing, singing, and chatting with his audience. It was uplifting, positive and very invigorating at the same time."
Also in attendance was death-rock.de, who, as the name suggests, were not entirely Empathy Test's target audience but were presently surprised by, and complimentary of the band's performance, particularly that of new drummer David Leisser. Leisser, they wrote, "gives the songs that decisive extra pressure and bridges the gap [from Synthpop] to indie rock". Meanwhile, the writer also remembered the "charismatic singer who could barely stand still for a second". This is what makes concerts fun, they said.
Empathy Test were then informed that the singer of DE/VISION, the band they were supporting at the next two shows in Hannover and Gelsenkirchen, was ill and would not be able to perform. It was easy enough to convince Kulttempel Oberhausen owner and co-promoter in Gelsenkirchen, Peter Jurjahn, to agree to move Empathy Test up to the headline slot, but the promoter at Acht&Siebzig was a little harder to convince. However, finally he agreed to allow the band to headline and the band and audience certainly did not disappoint, the turn out was excellent and Empathy Test were on fine form.
They provided their audience with a three set performance, Isaac performing some songs solo and acoustically, including his cover of Tears for Fears' Mad World before being joined by Oliver for four "electronic" versions of early tracks like Kirrilee and Holding On, before David Leisser joined them for the main set, kicking off with Monsters. The weather was perfect and the outdoor stage added a little something extra to proceedings. The band repeated the performance in the circus tent at Gelsenkirchen the next night and some fans who were at both shows said they even outdid themselves.
The next time the band would grace the stage would be at F.A.M.E in Poland, where other acts included Covenant and Eisfabrik. The band, with Oliver Marson on keyboards and Christina Lopez back behind the kit, again impressed their audience with an energetic and passionate experience, with local website muzobar.pl remarking that "Empathy Test, as predicted, stole the show".
The next show was a one-off headline show in the band's home town, London (UK), on 15th October 2022. The event was booked by Echelon Talent Agency and promoted by Crosstown Concerts. Empathy Test sold over 200 presale tickets without announcing any support bands, at a time when the live music industry was still reeling from the effects of Covid-19. Philip Frech was flown over from Austria to run sound and Christina Lopez was again back on drums.
On 29th October, Empathy Test performed for a second time at Plage Noire Festival in Northern Germany, where they headlined the third stage on Friday evening. The venue was at full capacity when Empathy Test performed and a portion of the audience were unable to get into the venue and instead had to watch the performance via screens outside.
On Sunday 31st October, Empathy Test performed on the main stage at Sinner's Day in Belgium, on the same day as Gary Numan. Both performances featured Christina Lopez on drums and Oliver Marson on keyboards.
On November 5th 2021, Aesthetic Perfection released Save Myself, a collaboration with Empathy Test's Isaac Howlett. Isaac co-wrote and co-sung the song with Aesthetic Perfection's Daniel Graves. The song formed part of Aesthetic Perfection's 12 Songs in 12 Months project and Save Myself went on to be released on the resultant Aesthetic Perfection album MMXXI.
Empathy Test's final show on 2021 would be with Diorama, Zweite Jugend and Visions in Clouds at the Schwarze Ball in Zurich, Switzerland on 11th December. David Leisser was back on drums , with Oliver Marson on keyboards.
Empathy Test kicked off 2022 with two headline Scandinavian shows. The first was in Copenhagen (Denmark) on 4th March, where they were supported by local band and future German tour support, The Foreign Resort, at Spillestedet Stengade. A week later (12th March) the band headlined Nalen Klubb in Stockholm, Sweden, with support from Octolab. David Leisser performed on drums at both shows.
On 15th April 2022, Empathy Test filled a cancellation slot at Resistanz Festival in Sheffield, UK. Christina Lopez was supposed to join the band for the performance but contracted Covid-19 in the week running up to the festival and was unable to perform. David Leisser flew in from Austria to play drums. A remix of Empathy Test's Empty Handed by Resistanz festival headliner Rotersand appeared on the Resistanz Festival 2022 Official Soundtrack CD.
On 27th April, Empathy Test were the secret "special guests" of Aesthetic Perfection at four dates in Austria and Germany, with David Leisser on drums and Oliver Marson on keyboards. Empathy Test's participation was kept secret until the last minute so as not to affect ticket sales on Empathy Test's own headline shows in Oberhausen, Hannover and Berlin (although Berlin was already sold out) later in the year.
In Oberhausen, Nadine Kloppert wrote (in German) for Monkeypress that despite Christina Lopez being missed, David Leisser did such a great job on the drums it was hard to notice any difference, and that Isaac was "in his element", animating the audience and dancing exuberantly. Roughly translated: "Empathy Test delivered precisely, and the audience was blissful".
In Hannover, Sharpshooter Pics wrote (also in German) that during Empathy Test's performance "the audience danced relentlessly and sang their hearts out". A particular highlight for them, was Holy Rivers, where the audience "not only sang along loudly, but continued to sing it after the song ended".
In Berlin, Deep Ground Magazine's Dagmar Urlbauer wrote (in German) that Empathy Test is a live act that "really packs a punch". Their performance in Berlin, she wrote, was "very impressive", but that that was hardly surprising. "After all," she said, "we are talking about one of the most talented musicians, who knows how to transport emotions with a depth and openness that is rarely found".
Isaac also joined Aesthetic Perfection on stage in Hannover and Berlin to perform an acoustic version of the song he co-wrote with Aesthetic Perfection, Save Myself.
On Friday 13th May, Empathy Test performed for the first time in Paris, France. The headline show at Espace Icare was promoted by Le Reactuer and support came from local acts Je T'Aime and Dear Deer.
On 27th May 2022, after two years' of postponements, Empathy Test began their Monsters Tour of Germany with support from The Foreign Resort and Italy's Hapax on selected dates. They also supported Ritual Howls (USA) in Vienna and Linz on May 30th and 31st respectively. The tour was one of their most successful to date in terms of ticket sales and performances sold out in Berlin, Hannover, Leipzig and Bremen.
On 1st July, Empathy Test performed at the first edition of Pluswelt's Eastside Open Air Festival, in Halle, Germany. On 23rd July they performed for a second time at Amphi Festival, in Cologne. This time, the band were on the indoor Theatre Stage. The venue reached full capacity and had to be closed off before the band arrived on stage.
At Liliom Kino in Augsburg on 29th July the band performed at the first edition of a small festival named after their song, Losing Touch, and sold out the evening they were headlining. It was also in Augsburg at the Losing Touch Festival that the band met local musician Nadine Green, who would perform with the band on keyboards just two weeks later at the Stella Nomine Festival in Torgau, Germany.
The following night, 30th July, Empathy Test performed to over 400 fans at Zeiss Planetarium in Jena, with 360 degree projections and surround sound. The Foreign Resort provided support.
On Friday 19th August, Empathy Test performed at Stella Nomine Festival in Torgau with Nadine Green standing in for Oliver Marson, who was shooting a music video for his solo project. On the following Monday, the band was contacted by Mark Guy of Bradford (UK) based festival Infest, asking if they could fill in at short notice for Rein, who was unable to travel to the UK because of passport/visa issues.
Oliver Marson was unavailable, so Isaac flew with Nadine to the UK on Saturday 27th August where they were joined by Christina Lopez on drums. The band's performance received a glowing review from A Mode of Control, who commented that "Empathy Test proved here that they can be effective headliners and excel doing so."
A month later, Empathy Test supported Covenant at The Garage in London on 16th September. The band was then supposed to fly to Chicago the following Wednesday (21st September) to perform at Coldwaves Festival in Chicago on 23rd September. The festival appearance was to form the first date of a full USA tour, with an appearance at Absolution Festival in Tampa, Florida, on 8th August and Substance Festival in Los Angeles on 21st October.
However, despite the band having applied for their US visa over three months prior, Isaac's visa was not issued until two days after the band were due to fly. With no indication when he would get his passport back, Empathy Test made the difficult decision to postpone the US tour until 2023.
With the help of Darker Side of Light, the band immediately began rebooking the US tour for October 2023, with Absolution Festival in Tampa, Florida, providing the first date. The band also announced they would be performing at Dark Force Festival in Parsippany, New Jersey, on Friday 31st March 2023.
Meanwhile, with the help of the band's live sound engineer, Philip Frech, Empathy Test had been making some live recordings across four shows on the German Monsters tour. Time to Be Alive was recorded at Liliom Kino in Augsburg with Christina Lopez on drums, and previously, in Munich, Hamburg and Berlin with David Leisser on drums. Oliver Marson performed on all tracks and the album was mixed and mastered by Adam Relf.
A limited edition slimline Digipak CD version of the album was rushed out in order to be sold at the merch table on the American tour. The album was released digitally on 23rd September, the day Empathy Test was due to perform at Coldwaves Festival in Chicago. Time to be Alive was released without a press campaign, reached #31 in Bandcamp's best selling albums - for all genres. It was #7 in Synth Heaven's Best Remix, Live & Symphonic Albums of 2022 and received 20,000 Spotify streams in its first week. The original Digipak CD spent several weeks at #5 in Poponaut's best selling CD chart.
Empathy Test kicked off 2023 with a headline show on 28th January at Winterwaves festival in Gothenburg, Sweden. It was only the second time Empathy Test had performed in Gothenburg and the sold out festival date also included Germany's Solar Fake and Sweden's Thermostatic, Sea Drake and Code 64.
The following week, Empathy Test flew to the UK for their first UK tour since 2019. The tour consisted of headline shows in Edinburgh, Manchester, London and Bristol, with David Leisser on drums and Oliver Marson on keyboards. Main support was Auger from Blackpool. A local opening act was booked for each date. Hanging Freud opened in Edinburgh and Magnetic Skies in London. Manchester based La Rissa were supposed to open the show at Rebellion but dropped out due to illness. As did ex Empathy Test member Samuel Winter-Quick's new band Alfie Monroe and the Hurt Boys.
Due to the current climate of economic recession, cost of living crisis, and even rail strikes, expectations for the UK tour were low. However, the band managed to sell almost 100 tickets on Thursday (2nd February) and Sunday nights (5th February) in Edinburgh and Bristol respectively, 120 in Manchester (on the day of a planned rail strike, 3rd February) and 220 in London (4th February).
Isaac Howlett and David Leisser returned to mainland Europe to perform a one-off headline show at Blue Shell in Cologne on Tuesday 7th February, with Nadine Green joining on keyboards. The 200 capacity venue was just a few tickets short of sold out, on a Tuesday night. The band encountered some serious techincal issues caused by a rogue MIDI trigger in Losing Touch, but soldiered on regardless. The evening was attended by Nadine Kloppert, who wrote an in-depth account of the evening for Monkey Press.
Empathy Test then embarked on their first ever (headline) tour of France, stopping off at Rock 'n" Eat in Lyon on 9th February with support from Je T'Aime and Saigon Blue Rain, at Le Ferrailleur in Nantes on 10th February, and at La Boule Noire in Paris on 11th February with Saigon Blue Rain and The Midnight Computers. Although not hugely well attended (approximately 60 tickets sold in Lyon and Nantes and over 100 in Paris) the band returned home happy.