There is a sense of an old-fashioned, early ‘90s post-punk grandeur on Toronto’s Theo Vandenhoff‘s debut Heartache is an Empty Room: self-described as “post-punk pop”, the EP recalls the raucous New Model Army on a track with more of the concise synthetic parity of These New Puritans. Tracks like “What’s In A Name?” and feature a sheen of a modern coldwave sensibility that recalls Drab Majesty, all while retaining the classic theatricality of Vandenhoff’s deep, stentorian voice.
Similarly, fast-paced tracks like of “Eight of Swords”‘ evince the strength of these songs’ influences, catapulting you into its careless, punk-blues-storytelling-like cadence opening: “It’s a blackened bit behind the bedroom door,” Vandenhoff announces, grimly and soberly: “A synthesized howl cuts through the drywall / piercing, shrill and untoward.” Meanwhile, “Undertones” starts off with a more boldly electronic beat, illuminating a nocturnal atmosphere while retaining the previous tracklist’s cleverly warm strength. Oddly enough, these perfectly produced cuts actually end up overshadowing the slower, simpler title track “Heartache is an Empty Room”, though there’s still plenty voice and tactical musical precision to admire— Vandenhoff’s stage-like intonation is poignantly calculated as it bites into lines like “it cuts like any other knife you ever knew.”
But it’s on “Lift”, on the album’s most human and wistful track, where the combination of old and new shines brightest: for the greater part of the introduction its halting, drawling guitar tones invoke New Order’s somber wistfulness, like lights scattered across a dewed lawn, but there’s a remarkable sense of modern synthpop’s hauntology, too. It’s as expansive and forward-facing as any classic Black Marble cut, and— as Vandenhoff more breathes than sings his reserved lines, coming to the same titular “escalation” that he emphasizes— you’re left with both a profound sense of tranquility and uncommon loneliness.
As a whole, the depth and range displayed on this debut is magnificent, especially for a near-entirely DIY process manufactured over quarantine. Like the title itself, as well as the events that contributed to it, there is a dually solitary and warm aspect to the Heartache is an Empty Room, as if the listener is looking through a glass window at living crowds of people, illuminated beneath an early summer night. Wide and lonely and uplifting, this is a definite recommendation for anyone seeking old-fashioned, cavernously produced post-punk and synthpop.