Words About Music
I first stumbled upon stoner/doom metal band Elder back in 2015. The end of the year revealed to me a lot of praise for the Massachusetts band’s third studio album, “Lore,” which I must have missed or slept on when it dropped in February of that year. I was somewhat impressed with what I heard, but not so much so that it made much of an impression on me, especially as someone who’s heard quite a bit of stoner/doom metal.
However, my interest was piqued when the initial reviews for Elder’s fourth album, “Reflections of a Floating World,” started pouring in, and my curiosity got the best of me. I’m always excited to hear what a newer doom metal band is doing, especially if folks are saying their latest record is their best yet. This is exactly the sort of praise I’ve been viewing for this new Elder record, and with 6 songs stretching out to a full hour, I’ve been anticipating these sweet sounds with bated breath for a few months at this point. I’ve had some time to let it sit with me, and here are my thoughts.
The album kicks off with the 11-minute banger “Sanctuary,” which hits us with a clever riff right out the gate. Vocalist/guitarist Nicholas DiSalvo comes booming in with his relatively clean voice, but it does have a bit more of a rough, lo-fi edge to it than the band’s brothers-in-doom Pallbearer, who do bear some similarities to Elder’s music. Within 3 minutes, all of the song’s lyrics have already been sung, giving the band plenty of time to let the music move and gestate organically, with more-than-solid results. For a trio, Elder knows how to kick up the volume with layers upon layers of distortion and feedback. The instrumental interplay on this album has a prog-rock feel to it that occasionally harkens to The Mars Volta’s earlier music, but with a jam-band edge to it with DiSalvo’s multiple guitar solos.
“Sanctuary” is a track that keeps you guessing as it takes you on a voyage across Earth’s hellscape, seeking exactly what the track’s title suggests. When the song’s chorus (I suppose you could call it that) comes through, Elder comes through with a somewhat more melodic answer to Neurosis’ sludgy tones. I like the way the song ends too, reprising the middle part’s groove and adding layer-upon-layer of shoegazing guitar throttles that’ll make even the most ardent pedal-freak engage in some headbanging. I wish the song had a less abrupt finale, but I think it very nicely sets the tone for the rest of the record.
“The Falling Veil” is where Elder takes us next, with a 1.5 minutes of subtle ambience exploding into some more proggy riffs and off-kilter grooves. This album, so far, is clearly indicating that it’s not going to be like a lot of doom metal records which depend entirely on heavy riffs without consideration for creativity, uniqueness, or melody. Some of the lyrics and instrumental bits on this track in particular remind me of “Crack the Skye”-era Mastodon, especially with DiSalvo’s vocals, which remind me a bit of both Troy Sanders and Brann Dailor. I love the way the intensity on this song builds and breaks with some more excellent guitar work, eventually segueing into a part of the song which isn’t dissimilar from a post-rock track. In fact, the ending of this song sounds like something that might have popped up on an early Russian Circles record.
Look, as much as I hate being the guy who reviews an album like “This album sounds like x band plus a bit of y band and it reminds me of z band, too,” there are a lot of similarities to behold within nearly any doom metal album. That’s not to say Elder doesn’t do a fantastic job of updating the formula on “Reflections of a Floating World,” it’s just that I can’t say it’s an entirely unique album, nor is Elder an entirely unique band. Regardless, this trio makes a fierce set of songwriters that can at least make an 11-minute song worth listening to and enjoying for its entirety. This is especially accomplished with the strange time signatures which Elder makes use of successfully, especially as “The Falling Veil” comes to its crashing finish.
The dreamier, glossier Elder makes another appearance at the beginning of the album’s third track, “Staving Off Truth.” After some more post-rock flourishes, the track breaks into a mid-paced metal song more in line with what can be categorized as doom metal. At this point in the album, though, I’m starting to see why DiSalvo’s vocals are mixed lower down. He doesn’t have the strongest vocal presence in the world, and I think Elder’s songwriting and instrumentation tends to be much stronger than the vocals and lyrics.
This is further evidenced by the midpoint of “Staving Off Truth,” which further indicates the band’s musical talents. I love the bass riff that pops in at this point, as well as the continued forays into post-rock structures and styles. I think this is how that particular genre should be done, in contrast to the “crescendo-core” derivative stuff that seems to be popping up more and more each year. Rather, this particular song reminds me somewhat of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, with the ambient guitar layers and expressive drums which ring through here. It all comes together with more technically sound riffs, syncopated between guitar, bass, and drum just like the best power trios. Is Elder just a more consistent, heavier version of Rush? As the album’s first half comes to a close, I can’t help but say “yes.”
The b-side of “Reflections of a Floating World” kicks off with the album’s longest song, the 13.5-minute “Blind.” After a straightforward riff, we get Elder’s version of a piano ballad, with DiSalvo singing over a somber keyboard. I think this track features the record’s best vocal performance, for sure, and I love the way Elder supplements the brutality with the beauty, giving us riffs to headbang to as it gives us some sweeter instrumentation to mull over in the interim. This song comes through with a pretty clear lyrical concept, delivering verses about how when we all finally come to agree that something needs to be done about the problems that ail our species and world, it will be too late. It’s a cautionary tale about human ignorance which can be applied to everything from capitalism to global climate change, from Trump and Brexit to Venezuela and Duterte.
Like most of the rest of the songs, “Blind” justifies its length with multiple movements and layers to keep the listener, specifically this listener, interested for the entire time. Just when you think the band is going to sit on an idea for an extended period of time and that it’s alright to space out, they hit you with an entirely new groove at a different speed than what you just heard. “Blind” executes this surprise excellently in its final minutes, with more killer bass/drum syncopation and some dreamy guitar chords.
The album’s most ambitious but least consequential song comes in the form of its shortest, an instrumental track called “Sonntag.” I feel like if the band had seen this track all the way through and written a satisfying conclusion, this could easily be my favorite track on the album. It’s not my least favorite, but the krautrock influence on this track leads me to believe there’s going to be more to it than there actually is. I also sense a bit of late-period Swans influence on this one as well, and I can’t help but feel like Michael Gira would have done a bit more with this track if it were his. On its own, though, “Sonntag” is a song that gets better and better, and then it’s over, never actualizing its potential with a truly solid ending.
The album’s final track, “Thousand Hands,” propels us right into space with its out-of-Earth riffage. I think if there’s one thing I can say is nearly perfect about this album, it’s that the instrumentation and songwriting are both almost always on-fucking-point. This is especially the case here, with Elder sounding like on mind working through three musicians (more like thirteen, honestly). I think this track features the band’s most complex songwriting on the entire album, so I appreciate that they at least save the best for last after the somewhat-underwhelming track which preceded it. The track’s psychedelic final minutes take us on a ride into the sunset, leaving us on a hell of a cliffhanger for the next Elder record, of which I hope there are many to come.
Of the Elder albums I’ve heard, “Reflections of a Floating World” is definitely the best. While it may lack a bit of the replay value some of my favorite metal albums of the year have, it’s still an extremely solid record that consistently brings some of the best metal musicianship of 2017. I think that the best is still yet to come for Elder, so I will absolutely be looking forward to whatever greatness the band bestows upon us next. Until then, there’s a decent chance this will still be one of my favorite records of the year, with its tight songwriting, multipartite song structures, brilliant musicianship, and diversity across the sonic palate. As far as contemporary doom metal goes, it’s hard to get better than this, but I still have faith in Elder.
SCORE — 8.00 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Sanctuary, The Falling Veil, Blind, Thousand Hands
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