Album Review: Elder - 'Lore' (Armageddon, 2015)

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On Lore, Elder takes a surprising leap into full-on extended progressive hard rock workouts.

If for a moment or two, you think you've accidentally put on a Yes record, don't be alarmed; the twangy and knotted dual-guitar country lick soon finds a rejoinder in distortion, bass guitar, and Zeppelin-style thumping of the drumkit that signifies that, yes, this is the sludge metal band you were looking for.

But that brief guitar lick that opens up Elder's new record Lore says more in a few moments about what makes this record of theirs unique in their body of work than I possibly could in a paragraph.

Take a moment to look at the cover of their last record, Dead Roots Stirring. Now flip back and look at the cover of the new one.

(Or, hell, just read their respective names.) The songs are still structured in a familiar way for the band, each song sliding effortlessly past the 10-minute mark with multiple concatenated riffs and melodic structures and nary a clear chorus or refrain in sight.

But where before the songs would be slathered in a thick layer of sickening grime, oozing the pestilential atmosphere of potent sludge metal, these songs bend and weave in a manner closer to the aforementioned Yes, Led Zeppelin, and the Allman Brothers Band.

A modern touchstone might be Mastodon's latest album, or most accurately Baroness' utterly superb Blue Record.

Like those records, Elder's Lore reduces the role of metal to but one ingredient, making it equal to the classic prog rock, heavy psychedelia, jammy dreamscapes, and more traditional hard rock.

Sludge and doom are still present, but are closer in approximation to how older groups like Uriah Heap or Flower Travellin' Band used them, grounding themselves more fully in psychedelia and hard rock with proto-doom as a way to heighten the theatricality of certain riffs rather than become the center of the sound itself.

The distortion on the guitars is dialed back, letting them take on a country-esque shimmer and more subtle psychedelic swoon that would otherwise get swallowed in noise.

Like Baroness, Mastodon, and Kylesa before them, Elder has learned that, while feedback can do a lot of the work for filling in psychedelic swirls for you, there is something in what Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple, and Rainbow were on to, blending the proggy flourishes of Yes with beefy hard rock riffage.

It's a move away from the more traditional punk ethos, sure; punk and rock and roll were never about having as firm control over the voyage as these songs do.

But the door of rock-as-mysticism the Beatles showed and Led Zeppelin kicked wide open remains there.

Elder was never really the grimiest of bands to begin with. Their records had grit, sure, but there was a subtlety to their shifting chord progressions and sense of harmonies and melodies that made their position in the world of sludge and doom sometimes feel more like one of how distorted their tone was than how primordially heavy their songs were.

They never possessed, for example, the stomach-churning tunneling riffs of Lord Mantis or the psychotic, strung-out hardcore-infused Sabbath grooves of Eyehategod.

These songs simply swing harder in the direction they were already moving, clearing out the level of distortion not for a lack of interest in the heavy but a need for clarity for their new, more nuanced and clearly proggy riffs.

Which makes it a shame that so many of the tracks on this album simply ride grooves to a fade-out. None of these songs are truly next-level transcendent heavy psych and prog, sure, but they're a notch above average a sure testament to why these sounds remain compelling.

Why, then, squander them on fade outs? It reorients the songs that came before less as fully-fledged heavy prog and more like precisely the kinds of self-indulgent jamming punks were accusing major rock bands of turning the genre into before they burned down the house with two-minute odes to anarchy.

Elder deserves better; these songs deserve better. Undoubtedly, they will receive more potent endings in live settings, but its a shame we don't get those kinds of endings here.

It's an issue that unfortunately comes down to songwriting acumen. Writing songs is a deceptively complex thing and, like any kind of writing, being good at one part doesn't guarantee you are great at all the others.

Unfortunately, where poppier genres and approaches to genre can get away with a killer chorus or maybe some great melodies in the verses or a totally sweet bridge, progressive and psychedelic songs don't have that luxury.

Once you throw out the verse-chorus-verse song structure, there's a new set of responsibilities; you aren't able to whip out that killer chorus you've been teasing all song and let it ride until a big, climactic drum hit.

Instead, like the intros and individual riffs and transitions you work so hard on, you also have to make an ending that is worthy of all that time spent in a track, something to justify taking that particular road.

This comes across as perhaps too hard on Elder. Because, again, these songs are terrific; they're in turns catchy melodic prog bits, country picked melodies, hard rock grooves, heavy metal riffing, doomy psych space, and on more than a few occasions some straight forward rock and roll with that Deep Purple/Led Zeppelin boogie. They nail transitions in song, making these 5 tracks feel closer to 20, weaving in multiple subtle climaxes and callbacks and recapitulations.

But while Elder is adept at making these songs keep going, and going, and going, constantly finding new ways to rejuvenate the songs so that they never flag too much, they don't always know how to stick the landing. It can be more distracting at some times than others; sometimes I will listen and the tracks will flow smoothly for me, and others the slow fade and then start up of a new track will be jarring and cause the record to lose its energy momentarily.

If they had worked out powerful endings to these tracks, or perhaps even solid transitions to get them from one track to another, we'd have a great record on our hands. As it stands, it's merely very, very good.

It's an issue that wasn't as apparent before. With a thick enough layer of distortion, you can let the wicked howl of the amplifiers do the work for you.

Dialing back in certain areas has allowed Elder's songwriting to flourish to a degree that is shocking and deeply satisfying.

Hopefully over the course of touring this record and learning how to find proper closings for these tracks on the road, they will have figured out a way to bring songs of this caliber in the body of the piece to a satisfying close at the end.

Image courtesy of Elder's Bandcamp page.

Wanna read more on this? Check these out: Sebastian Roché And Pearl Mackie Pull Out Of 2018 Auckland Armageddon Expo (more); Album Review: Pyramids - 'A Northern Meadow' (Profound Lore, 2015) (more).