The Empire Strikes Back
Hours of New Awesome from Celldweller

I just added it up: I spent $163 to buy Celldweller’s new album End of an Empire.

Granted, I spent all this money gradually over a year and a half, so it never seemed like that much. And to be clear, I don’t regret it at all. But the fact that I literally did not know how much I’d invested in End of an Empire shows just how successful its marketing plan has been. I have a crazy collector gene, and the Celldweller team knows how to tap right into it.

Of course, I knew going into this that I’d be buying many of these songs more than once. End of an Empire, the third Celldweller album, was released in chapters over the course of a year, and each chapter came on a limited-edition CD that I, of course, needed to have. These CDs each included two songs from the album, remixes, instrumental versions, and “factions” – basically, reinterpretations of the music with interesting links to what eventually took shape as an overarching plot. They were cool items in their own right, with superb artwork.

But I also knew that when End of an Empire became available to buy in its finished form, I would do that too. There were two things I didn’t know: that the finished album would have two songs not included on the chapters, and that in addition to a single-disc version, there would be a five-CD box set collecting every song, every faction and remix (including ones I didn’t have on the chapters), and every instrumental in one swell-looking package. So of course, I had to have that too. What’s that? End of an Empire will be released on vinyl as well, and it’s super-cheap to buy as part of a package deal with the box set? Sign me up.

So yes, in the end, I will have 13 CDs and two vinyl records full of this music, and I will have bought many of these tracks twice and some three times. And I’m perfectly happy with all this. So who the hell is Celldweller and why do I like his work so much?

In some ways, I discovered Celldweller only a couple years ago. But in some ways, I’ve been a fan since I was 19 years old. The mastermind behind Celldweller now goes by Klayton, but in the ‘90s he went by his real name, Scott Albert, and called his musical project Circle of Dust. I first heard CoD on a tribute album to satirical superstar Steve Taylor – their version of “Am I In Sync” was blistering and insane. Circle of Dust followed in the industrial metal footsteps of Ministry and KMFDM, marrying chugging riffs to insistent electronic beats and samples, with well-placed full-throated screams for punctuation.

I bought the three Circle of Dust albums, the Metamorphosis remix record, and even Albert’s bizarre side project, Argyle Park (where he first started using the name Celldweller). When the final CoD album, Disengage, came out, I was dispirited to read that Albert was moving on. His next project, Angeldust, was a collaboration with magician Criss Angel, and was impossible to find. So I didn’t. I lost track of Albert (or Klay Scott, as he was then calling himself) completely, and it was only in the last couple years that I first heard that he had started recording under his new name. And come to find out, he’d made huge leaps in his style in the meantime.

Over three albums, Klayton has refined that style to the point where it is now totally unique. Celldweller music is a hybrid of industrial, metal, electro, symphonic prog and pop, with splashes of punk and dubstep. I’ve heard a lot like it, but I’ve never heard anything exactly like it. Klayton is an extremely detailed producer, up there with the likes of BT and Trent Reznor, but what he does sounds very little like either of them. It’s sonically rich material – almost too rich to take in all at once sometimes – and Klayton isn’t afraid to jump genres on a dime. The title track of End of an Empire alone leaps from ambient to screaming death metal in the space of a minute, with a big, soaring chorus and two minutes of electro-proggy workout at the end.

The ten long songs on End of an Empire unfold over an hour. If you buy the single-disc version, you get those songs interspersed with three of the factions, and if you buy the box, you get the songs on one disc (in a different order) and all 15 factions on another. There’s no point in asking which is the “correct” order, although both end with the crawling yet hopeful “Precious One.” They’re both correct, and completely different listening experiences. (Which is yet another reason I bought both.) While the box begins with the title track, the single-disc starts with the traveling-at-light-speed throb of “New Elysium,” one of the album’s most propulsive tunes.

Throughout this record, Klayton takes chances like he never has. “Heart On” begins like NIN’s “Down In It” but soon erupts into a semi-goofy dance-punk track that pivots on the line “I fucking love you.” He revels in the pun: “I wear my heart on my sleeve so everybody can see I’ve got a heart on for you,” but somehow it works. “Just Like You” is a dark, spacey, ever-building ballad that shows how well Klayton can sing, while “Good Luck, You’re Fucked” is a jolt in the arm – a three-minute garage-punk tune with awesomely cheesy keyboards and a killer chorus. Somehow it comes at just the right moment in the album, whichever running order you choose.

The two songs I hadn’t heard are both swell. “Breakout” incorporates Klayton’s side project, Scandroid, the hallmark of which is a strikingly ‘80s sensibility. This song, literally about a jailbreak, is a nice mix of the angularity of Celldweller and the glass-smooth shine of Scandroid. The other, “Jericho,” is a more straightforward, dark tune that stays in one mode for its entire running time, which alone makes it stand out on this record. The final minutes are bold and symphonic, and among my favorites on End of an Empire.

Yeah, this is the kind of album where you have to pick favorite minutes, because the songs are so intricate, and they come at you without letting you catch your breath. An hour of Celldweller music is exhausting (but a good kind of exhausting), and End of an Empire even more so, since these songs are mostly in the six-to-seven-minute range. That’s one reason I love Celldweller – it’s a workout for my musical brain, sending it a whole bunch of different places at once, while still giving it the nourishing melodies it craves.

If you find that you can handle it, you may want to try the box set – it’s four hours and 40 minutes, with an additional hour and 40 minutes of downloadable bonus content. The 15 factions on disc two are interesting, more in the vein of Klayton’s soundtrack work for films and video games. Some of it is ambient, some of it is noisy, and some of it includes narration that adds context to the songs. The third disc includes instrumental versions of the 10 main songs, allowing you to hear the intense sonic detail Klayton puts into them.

The fourth and fifth discs include 20 remixes of the End of an Empire songs, along with five goofy chiptune takes on the songs, which sound like the score to an 8-bit video game from the ‘80s. Most of the mixes are reinventions, not just retreads, making for a varied listen that is rarely boring. Klayton even resurrects Circle of Dust for a remix of “Jericho,” and he does a perfect job of recreating his old sample-heavy sound. Instrumental versions of all the remixes and chiptunes make up the downloadable bonus content. In all, it’s a ton of music, and it takes a while to get through and absorb it all. But it’s impressive, enjoyable stuff.

In general, I’m torn about the idea of releasing albums in installments, but Klayton has made an art form out of it. I found myself wanting all four chapters, the final album and the full box set, partially because they’re all so well designed. And if Klayton does what I think he’s going to do and releases a two-CD “narrative version” of the album, integrating the songs and factions with more narration and a sense of story, I’ll buy that too. Other artists on Klayton’s label FiXT are following this release model, and it works because fans feel like they’re getting sneak peeks, new songs as soon as they’re finished.

None of it would matter if the music weren’t strong, but End of an Empire is the strongest Celldweller has been yet. Try this one – if you can listen to an hour of Klayton’s explosive, intricate, inventive work and remain unimpressed, then nothing he’s done will be for you. I’m definitely impressed, and glad to have caught up with Klayton/Klay Scott/Scott Albert after so many years. Word is he’ll be remastering and reissuing the Circle of Dust albums next year, too, so it all comes full… ahem, circle.

You can buy Celldweller music (and there’s a lot of it) online here.

Next week, Mutemath. I don’t plan to be this effusive. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.