Saturday, March 12, 2016

Elephant Tree Will Destroy You…And You’re Going To Love Them For It.

Maybe making a distinction between “stoner rock” and “doom” isn’t necessary, but they’ve always felt slightly different to me.

When I think stoner rock, I think open desert, endless highways, the infinity of space. 

Doom, for me, is more claustrophobic, and that’s not a bad thing.  Doom is the unwelcoming city – cold, dark, crushing and confining.

Some people would debate which bands to put in which category.  Others might argue that the distinction is pointless because there’s so much overlap.

I’m not advocating my particular position on this.  I simply find it de-clutters my mind to hear a band and efficiently slot them into the appropriate mental classification.

Usually when great new bands come along, they fit into this musical worldview.  But once in a while, a transcendent artist or group touches down, forcibly widens my understanding, and requires me to accommodate the ways they’ve rethought the formula.

Cue my discovery of Elephant Tree.

With a tone as heavy as anything Weedeater or Windhand ever laid to tape, the first impulse is, “doom band.”  But their new self-titled album breaks down the stereotype quickly. 

“Wither,” the first proper song, is built on a massive musical lever that pries your ears into acquiescence.  It’s riddled with graveside yearning, calling to mind Jesu or Agents of Oblivion, but more massive.  The band also make it evident that they have high expectations for themselves vocally (which I’ll discuss more in a second).

This funereal slab unfolds as if mapped out the way Pink Floyd used to build songs – through architects collaborating with artists to infuse both structure and musicality.  It builds, releases, builds, releases, withdraws, explodes, and climaxes, melodically and lyrically conveying resignation as well as hope.  It’s basically a perfect composition.  And it’s the first song on the record.

The band shift from longing dirges like the aforementioned and the equivalently sludgy “Fracture” to knuckle-dragging monsters like “Dawn” and “Aphotic Blues,” both of which employ magma-thick foundational grooves crowned by an irresistible vocal hook.  If Goatsnake was ever as good as they thought they were, they’d have been writing songs like these.

“Circles” goes acoustic, and it works.  It’s stripped down and harmony-focused, much like Baroness’ “Sleep That Steels The Eye.” You don’t hear it and think, “Whoah, an acoustic song,” but rather recognize the natural move to tear things down at this point in the album.  It’s a beautifully delicate moment amid the pummeling, and the song echoes “Whither’s” sense of melancholy.

Speaking of echoes, let’s talk about the oddball tune on this record.  “Echoes” is as close to a pop song as this band could likely produce, but it’s a pop song the way “Money” or “Another Brick in The Wall, Pt. 2” are pop songs – it has a vocal pattern as catchy and singable as anything that ever landed on the British rock charts, but it’s vastly too intelligent for the pop-listening masses to ever embrace.  And thank God for that. 

These Pink Floyd references keep popping up, don’t they?  It’s not musical similarities, but a common sensibility, one that’s stuck with me since the first time I heard David Gilmour sing, “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.”  There’s no other way to say it – Pink Floyd’s music radiates an immutable Britishness, and the new Elephant Tree pulses with it as well.  In subtle, unalterable ways, it communicates that this is a band who loves their craft, believes utterly in what they’re creating, but perhaps on some level doesn’t put much stock in this whole human existence situation.  And boy, do I identify.

Did I mention that Elephant Tree employs three of its four members on vocals?  Layered together, they create an ethereal chorus that elevates every layered note with shimmering harmonies.  It’s leveraged to blinding infectiousness throughout the record, and they confirmed the intention when I asked about it:

Riley [sitar], Pete [bass] and Jack [guitar] all sing on most of the tracks, building harmonies on top of each other.  Riley had the focus of making the upcoming album massive in terms of vocals, imagining huge harmonies on really low down heavy guitars.  Sometimes it's disappointing when you hear bands that have such a good song but the vocals are a bit lacking or hidden.

Curious about the process that created this monster of an album, I was intrigued to learn that the band generally compose as a group:

“We start by one of us bringing in an idea, usually in the form of a riff.  Then we all chip in ideas and slowly add parts until a song starts to form. Once we have a basic framework, we keep repeating the song over, adding and taking away parts.  Vocals are the same.  Occasionally people will bring in songs that are almost finished, but nothing is ever 100% done when they demo it, and I wouldn't say any one member writes anything 100% on their own.”

As far as influences, it’s always refreshing to hear that many diverse interests are at play amongst the members, as nothing is so two-dimensional as a band playing a particular style whose entire sound is essentially an homage to another band in that style:

Jack listens to a lot of folk music and takes a lot of inspiration vocally from the Beatles.  Pete is constantly writing his own music, whether for us or his other band.  He tends to not listen to much music, concentrating on what he writes instead.  Having said that, he has a soft spot for Weedeater.  Riley works in a studio on tracks from a massive range of genres.  Giant Squid are a huge influence for him musically and he's always pushing ideas for new tracks.  Sam tends to scour Spotify listening to whatever pops up.  Windhand are a firm favorite of all of us, and OM are a big influence in terms of drums along with Dead Meadow.  Too many bands to mention, but safe to say the influences are wide and varied.”

Listening to their album again for what feels like the four-hundredth time this week, I concur that it’s safe to say their influences range far and wide.  For a band to come forth from the ether and floor me like this when I’d never even heard their name was a welcome assault.  I’ll be doing nothing but gush over their new album for some time – highly recommended for fans of that lofty pinnacle that great doom can occasionally reach.

Elephant Tree Elephant Tree is out April 22 on Magnetic Eye Records, and is available for pre-order here


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