Originally released in Fall 2019 as a very limited double CD-r, electro-industrialists Steril’s most recent LP has arrived digitally, allowing a wider swathe of listeners to hear what the venerable act have been up to. While 2014’s Misanthrop heard the German trio engaging with the EBM sounds that informed their early 90’s debut Transmission Pervous, Empiricism feels like a continuation of the broader sounds Steril was exploring in the early to mid aughts. It’s a record that sounds and feels like Steril – due in no small part to their distinctive programming and the voice of Mähne Meenen – while never quite achieving the heights they’ve shown themselves to be capable of.
On the positive end of things, the production and performance side of Empiricism is quite good and varied. Listening to the bass programming and sample work on cuts like “Black Jesus” and “Sunburned”, it’s striking how good and effortlessly Steril can summon a big dancefloor groove, bass and drums interacting in ways that create energy and movement. Sound design has always been a strong suit for them and remains so here; absent the guitar chug that informed the first half of their career, the album’s distinctive synth and drum patches sit well with each other in the mix. That’s a big strength, especially where their songs (like for example “Afraid of Silence”) add additional layers of complexity through arrangement and modulation.
With all that going for it, it’s somewhat disappointing that Empiricism‘s craft is more notable than its melodies and choruses. Steril have always been good for a standout hook, but very few moments here have the zip and appeal of their classic era material, despite sounding just as good from a recording standpoint. Meenen does his level best to get songs like “Halo” over, but there’s only so much his distinctive mix of growling and crooning can do when the song’s funky verse transitions to holding pattern chorus. In some cases tracks feel underwritten (“Unleashed Compassion”), as though inspiration ran out after the opening segments were put together.
Empiricism isn’t a bad record necessarily, although its pleasures lie almost entirely in cherry picking aspects of its execution. It has some good ideas and a pleasing familiarity that can carry it a ways even when the songs aren’t quite up to snuff. Longtime fans may miss the visceral thrills of Steril’s classic catalogue, while still finding some pleasure in its technique and delivery.