R E V I E W
'Ultraviolet' EP, by Empasse
by Ian Duggan
I grew up beyond the west-side of Huntly, a bike ride from Rotowaro, and I was schooled in Huntly itself. In primary school I had a friend who I visited in Rotowaro - the son of a miner - so I have vague memories of the town, before it became a (literal) hole; the site of the town went on to become part of the second largest opencast coal mine in New Zealand. Most vividly, I remember ‘tapping’ the pay phone in the main street. So, with these memories, the debut ‘Ultraviolet’ EP from ‘Empasse’ piqued my interest, being described by Nick Johnston (late of Sora Shima, The Changing Same and Dynamo Go), the musician behind the project, as “a soundtrack to a story that is not well known in New Zealand… the story of the town of Rotowaro, a former mining village that was entirely removed in the 1980s to make way for an opencast coal mine”. The cover art, featuring the Huntly Power Station, also has a personal interest, as an area I watched emerge from paddocks in my childhood, which I passed every day on my bus trip to school, and where my sister ended up working for a time. To date ‘What’s Wrong with Huntly’ by ‘Hugh and the New Zealanders’ is probably the best known song about my hometown; “Angus McDonald’s the mayor of the town, he’s into coal mining….”.
Rather than celebrating the coal towns, however, Nick describes ‘Ultraviolet’ as being “about the damage and wounds that we cannot see – in this case, it is the rural communities that have [been] battered over many generations to grow and power our larger cities…”; “successive generations in some of those communities have been hit particularly hard for land and mineral extraction. In the case of Rotowaro, a whole village that had to be destroyed to keep the coal flowing to Huntly Power Station, or the power station itself being built on sites of importance to local hapū, with the station built right next to Waahi Pā”. All of this resonated with me, having grown up there through the ‘boom’ and eventual ‘bust’ of the mining and power industries, witnessing the social change of the area first-hand, before I eventually escaped to Kirikiriroa.
But what of the music? Composed primarily during our first COVID-19 lockdown, Johnston describes it as “having cinematic qualities… something that would not feel out of place on the big screen”. This is certainly true; I can easily see these instrumentals, each of which represents different moods, from the dark and atmospheric opening track ‘Lockdown’, to the more upbeat ‘Battering Ram’ (with its relentless beat reminiscent of industrial progression), being picked up for the soundtracks of New Zealand movies. As much as I love The Phoenix Foundation, heaven knows we need a bit more variety in our movie soundtracks!
The EP is scheduled for release on 14 September 2020, and will be available through Spotify, Apple Music, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Tidal and YouTube.