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Lark's Tongues in Ozma's Topographic Oceans: ELDER - Omens Review

On album number five, the kings of progressive stoner doom offer up their most ambitious work to date.

Photograph by Anait Sagoyan

In the immortal words of PRINCE, dig if you will the picture. This picture doesn’t involve an ocean of violets and blue, but instead, the lush green St. Paul, Minnesota suburb of Lexington Hamline South. It’s the beginning of the summer 2016 and I’m currently fifteen months deep into a twenty four month mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was serving with one of the best dudes ever, Davis Dygert, and he and I were absolutely loving serving in that area. Soon after my arrival there, I found out there was a record store that was only a ten minute bike ride from our apartment. I was somehow able to convince Dygert to go to the record store one day. As we walked in with our white shirts, ties and nametags, I immediately made a beeline for the metal section. While browsing through, By the Way by THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS faded out and on came a song that started with a super melodic and catchy riff pattern. It caught my ear instantly and I listened intently through the store’s crappy PA. Within a few seconds, the song exploded into bloom. It was a revelatory experience and I marched right to the front and demanded the worker to tell me who the artist was. He said something to the effect of, “This song is called Compendium and the band is called Elder.” My high school days of discovering music led me to unearthing ELDER at some point and I remember really enjoying their self-titled debut (2008) and their sophomore offering Dead Roots Stirring (2011), but there was no way this could be the same band. I asked what the album was called and if this band also put out a record called Dead Roots Stirring and they confirmed that it was indeed the same band and that the record in question was called Lore (2015).

To say I was in shock is putting it lightly. I sat and listened until the song ended in it’s ten minute glory. Sadly though, I had to wait an agonizing nine more months to hear this song again and listen to the rest of the record. I was quickly able to fully realize just how far this band had come in their history up to this point. It was 2017, so the band had roughly been around for eleven years and seeing how they evolved into an entity all their own was utterly spellbinding. Formed in 2006 by guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo, bassist Jack Donovan and drummer Matt Couto in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, ELDER began their quest for dominance as a very sludgy and rather forward thinking band in the realms of SLEEP and ELECTRIC WIZARD worship. They dropped their first self-titled record Elder through MeteorCity Records and it established the band quickly as a contender in the thriving stoner doom scene. Tracks like Hexe, Ghost Head and the two part epic Riddle of Steel cemented the band as noteworthy but firmly in the spot where most stoner bands fall: relative ease of success through derivative copying of the old guard. But this is where the ELDER story really takes its turn for the interesting.

In 2011, ELDER released the massively influential and highly acclaimed follow up entitled Dead Roots Stirring. Many anticipated this was yet another stoner doom album, but the band had a rather grand ace up their sleeves. They decided to get a little bit more psychedelic, a tad more riff driven and above all else, a lot more progressive. It was as if MASTODON, KYUSS, GENTLE GIANT and THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE all dropped some major coin on some prime acid and jammed with each other. The record was astounding to many in the community and soon after, the band would become a hotly contested commodity for tours and festivals. They then released the more than worthy two song EP Spires Burn/Release just a year after Dead Roots Stirring. This EP in particular signaled a major sea change in the group as DiSalvo’s riff structures began to sound less and less like Jus Oborn and Matt Pike and more like Robert Fripp and Alex Lifeson. Donovan’s bass lines took more inspiration from Chris Squire and Doug Ferguson while Matt Couto’s drum bashing was more methodical and measured in the vein of Carl Palmer and Bill Bruford. The band were able to play Roadburn the following year and then they went silent for a spell to emerge in 2015 with the grandiose epic Lore.

In my own opinion, I still don’t think the stoner rock/metal community realizes just how important and at the same time detrimental this record would become. The five songs that together clock in at a whopping 59 minutes showcased the band in their finest hour. The album valleyed and peaked continuously and never became boring despite the shortest song on the album, Deadweight, clocking in at a brisk nine and a half minutes. Album cornerstones Compendium, Lore and Spirit at Aphelion gave everyone a glimpse of what it was like to really reinvent the stoner doom/psychedelic metal wheel for the next generation. It put more emphasis on songwriting, soundscapes and an overall concept that was too hard to write off. When I say that the album was a detriment is not a knock on the record itself, I personally believe that it’s flawless. What was detrimental however is how stoner rock and metal bands simply cowered in fear at what ELDER presented to them. No band or album since has been able to really contend with it and for that reason alone I believe that in one fell swoop, Lore perfected the evolution of stoner doom and killed it all at once. Say what you want about the derivative nature of modern old school sounding death metal, but how many bands in stoner rock and stoner metal have come even slightly close to what ELDER accomplished on Lore? The only band I can think that really can even marginally match them is SOMALI YACHT CLUB from the Ukraine and they aren’t even metal. DiSalvo explained that much of the music he and the rest of the band consumed around the time they were writing the record also indicated how left field they wanted to go. He cited bands such as COLOUR HAZE, CAN, TANGERINE DREAM and ASH RA TEMPEL as prime sources of inspiration on Lore’s creation alongside a good helping of BLACK SABBATH, RUSH, KING CRIMSON, DEEP PURPLE and even MANILLA ROAD to my ears.

The band would continue to experiment and push themselves further into that krautrock influenced territory on their fourth record Reflections of a Floating World, which came to light in the summer of 2017. Retaining the heaviness of Lore, the band moved further into more dreamy landscapes and keyboard driven territory no thanks in part to multi-instrumentalist Michael Risberg, who would join the band as a full time member soon after the release of the album. The record reaffirmed how special ELDER were at creating something that was wholly and uniquely their own in a scene overcrowded with Orange amp worshipping bands that were simply stuck in a musical Stone Age while ELDER were harnessing intergalactic travel. Songs such as Sanctuary gave stoner music one of it’s best anthems since SLEEP’s Dragonaut. Staving Off Truth gave glimpses of how to perfectly meld THE SWORD levels of heaviness with Van De Graff Generator and Thousand Hands provided a solid closer to one of the most refreshing records of the decade.

The band decided in 2019 to take a stab at the experimental with The Gold & Silver Sessions, which was a way for the band to really get in touch with their growing krautrock meets doom meets prog obsession. It also surprisingly had elements of jazz fusion reminiscent of MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA. Sadly though, after the release of that EP, the band announced in the closing months of the year that Matt Couto would be leaving the band after being their rhythmic backbone for nearly thirteen years, leaving DiSalvo and Donovan as the sole remaining pieces of the original core membership. The band would later follow that news with the introduction of new drummer, Georg Edert, who the band befriended while DiSalvo and Risberg successfully resurrected their post rock influenced band GOLD & SILVER. This quartet would enter Black Box Studios in France to begin work on what would become their next progressive stoner masterpiece, entitled Omens.

So why the massive history lesson and gloating over records like Lore and Reflections of a Floating World? To fully understand how you will interpret this record is ENTIRELY dependent on how you much you enjoyed the last two records. Opening title track Omens begins with a very baseball stadium meets URIAH HEEP sounding organ/sequencer before the riffs dive in with some, but not too much, force. What is instantly recognizable is that the group decided to dial back much of their heavier elements, yet they remain as heavy as you can get within their sphere. Nick comes swooping in with his distinctive tenor and the tale of the new musical odyssey begins. In a way, the track has a certain pep to it that was found in many moments throughout Reflections of a Floating World. The production also adds a crispness that was present on that record and is pushed ever so slightly forward in this album. The song goes into a very dreamy clean guitar and synth passage around the 4:30 mark that invokes post rock heavyweights THIS WILL DESTROY YOU before the track goes back into it’s eager riff pattern that dares the listener to not tap their feet and nod their head. Nick’s vocals carry a certain desperation that is found in the vocal work of the dearly departed and equally revered John Wetton of KING CRIMSON and ASIA. The track rides out on a chill wave of psychedelic riffing and closes in a swell of guitar and synth that melds into a strange static collage.

ELDER continue the epic journey on following track In Procession. The track begins with some fuzzed out riffing before giving way to the actual guitars and a very welcome backing keyboard. In a way, this track seems like an odd mixture of KYUSS meets JOHN CARPENTER and I feel that while this track does not totally blow you out of your seat, it really doesn’t need to. The instrumentation feels very natural and benefits from blowing the lid off everything. The track rides a steady stream of keyboard driven passages that bear a striking resemblance to Rick Wright’s setup on Animals until the guitars return around the 7:47 mark. Edert gives the band a vigorous and propulsive energy as the song closes on a simple and tasteful acoustic guitar that would almost sound like something from the early recordings of BARONESS.

The third track entitled Halcyon opens with a beautiful synth passage that instantly recalled the late part of the first era of KING CRIMSON, more specifically Starless and Bible Black and Red. Reverb guitar trickles in a fashion similar to the noise rock collective LOCRIAN’s 2010 effort The Crystal World, albeit not as abrasive and caustic. In a way, you can also pick up some YES vibes from the way the track ebbs and flows like the early works of that seminal group. After a good introduction, DiSalvo and Risberg come in and the fun begins once again. Despite being the longest track on the album, Halcyon does a great job at keeping your attention like much of ELDER’s long cuts. There are also zooming keys that really reminded me of underground space rock legends U.S. CHRISTMAS and their record Eat the Low Dogs. Stringed instruments and keys swell with very measured percussion around nine minutes in. What also continues to impress me is that ELDER never fall into the trap of sounding like their contemporaries or influences, yet they meld them into a cohesive and dynamic whole and forge sounds that are fresh yet familiar. The ten minute mark of the track brings in a very 80’s esque synth that adds to the semi cosmic feel of the track. Some of the heaviest guitar riffing appears and complements the synth quite nicely. We aren’t exactly reaching ELDER levels of heavy, but it remains heavy for what the band are trying to accomplish with the new sound they are looking to flesh out. The keys ride a melody that eerily mirrors MIKE OLDFIELD’s Tubular Bells before fading into the mists of time.

Embers begins the ending portion of the record with Nick giving a rather impassioned vocal performance as the instrumentation backs with considerable weight and finesse. It’s a bit more lighthearted in its atmospheric presentation but it also retains a psychedelic mind space akin to COLOUR HAZE. The track takes a slight dip back into prog waters with an interesting shift in timing, introducing some stray guitar tones and keyboard swelling. In a strange bit, there is a clean guitar that plays around the 4:45 minute that sounds like it could come from an instrumental interlude on an IN FLAMES record before Nick once again spins the yarn like an aged storyteller. Keyboards announce triumphantly their arrival and very soon after a very distinctive krautrock section breaks before being cut by more reverbed guitar that adds an exceptionally light and breezy feeling. It’s almost as if you are listening to this record while gazing at the Aegean and sipping on a tropical cocktail whilst tripping on some very choice weed. Risberg and DiSalvo duel it out a bit before spacey synth again swoops in to make its mark. The track ends in another tidal wave of dueling bass, guitars, and synth before ending in static.

ELDER closing tracks have always been bangers to be completely honest, but when you step into One Light Retreating, you get the sense that things have changed slightly. It doesn’t have massive fist pumping potential like Spirit at Aphelion or Thousand Hands have, yet there is something very triumphant about its construction. It almost feels meditative in the way a track like RUSH’s Xanadu or KING CRIMSONs Starless would play out, beginning slow and ever so melancholic before breaking out some very impressive musicality to throw the listener off the trail. It’s a move that ELDER have always had a tremendous grasp over and very few bands in their style can say the same about their own tunes. Soloing around the 6:30 mark followed with organ is a welcome call back to select moments from Reflections of a Floating World before drifting into a very BRIAN ENO styled ambient piece that puts the listener into a dreamlike state. Soft cymbals from Edert complement the sequence before Donovan returns with a funky bassline, all the while the keys continue to build atmosphere and the guitar adds texture. Signature ELDER guitars return to close things off in magnificent fashion, ending the group’s most adventurous record to date.

Now that the music has had its own analysis, I wish to delve for a moment into the concept of the record itself. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in the way of lyrics to really glean information from but with a keen ear, I was able to pick up bits and pieces of what ELDER were wishing to convey. This also led me to asking my fellow music nerds in the Heaviest of Art group chat and the wonderful Jake Sanders offered a theory.

The press release explains that the record is indeed a concept album about a civilization that rises and falls due to its continued emphasis on materialism and wanton desire for profitability. Knowing how thought provoking ELDER are, I knew I couldn’t take this explanation at face value. Lore, at least to my ears and mind, had an extraordinarily strong lyrical bloodline to the seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) by renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell and Reflections of a Floating World was a commentary on the Edo period of Japan. When asking Jake what he thought about what Omens might be about, he offered a rather interesting take, that being that it is about the ancient Olympic Games and what they represented compared to today. Now you may be thinking, this is a very weird stretch but hear me out. The Olympic Games in their original form were designed as a sort of tribute to the gods and focused on shedding the material by placing one’s physical being at the forefront of sport and competition in order to honor deity. It was all to show that what they were doing was in honor of the immaterial by placing the material body and landscape to use in that celebration. However, as we know, the Greeks would be overtaken by the Romans and most of what remains of ancient Greek culture is simply what the Romans deemed worth keeping. Today’s Olympic Games now focus more on the athletic and the profitability of the games rather than on what they were originally intended to symbolize. Parallels can be drawn to our modern way of life as well in that we seek meaning in the material when sometimes, for certain people, the answers can lie with the immaterial, the intangible. It’s through these themes and concepts that ELDER wish to convey through amplified music. It’s something that has always drawn me to their music as both a self-proclaimed lover of the intelligentsia as well as someone who just adores beefy distorted guitar riffs. This to me, among others, is what makes ELDER so very special in my mind.

Often though, it is hard to criticize groups that you love about certain aspects of their evolution. But point out certain things I must. One of the very defining traits of ELDER has always been the emphasis on the music itself and the vocals less so. With that being said, I felt a little off put by the choice to have Nick DiSalvo’s vocals so far forward in the mix. His vocal approach in the past has always seemed like a sentinel on a mountain proclaiming truth but on this record, he feels more like a random street salesman in comparison. While I don’t feel like the band should return to their roots, the band excel when they can meld heaviness with progressive tendencies like they did on Lore and I feel that just a small percentage was lost on this album, but not enough to impact it in a negative way.

ELDER are a band that in my eyes have rarely made a misstep in their career. They have been able to reinvent themselves on every release they have concocted thus far, and I feel they will continue to push their own musical boundaries as time goes on. While I feel this won’t win over fans of the self-titled record and Dead Roots Stirring, it is a more than worthy entry into their catalog. In the minds of many, including myself, this is a record that will take time and astute concentration to fully appreciate and contemplate on. While I feel like it would never truly overtake the one-two punch of Lore and Reflections of a Floating World, Omens nonetheless cements ELDER as one of the most unique bands in heavy music and places itself as their most adventurous and thought provoking record to date. It’s no wonder I’ve been captivated with their sound since I first heard Compendium all those years ago in that record store. It was something that could be on par with what I would call a spiritual experience. Their impact through each subsequent album, including Omens, on my life is palpable yet awfully hard to truly describe to someone who has never heard them. What I’ve also found very ironic is that in my religion, male missionaries are given the title of ELDER when they enter their field of labor. Maybe it was all meant to be.

Omens arrives on April 24th via Armageddon Shop. Be sure to get your copy HERE.

Cover art by Adrian Dexter


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