Beyond Metal: Elder’s “Omens” Fuels Heady Vibes with Killer Alt-Rock Melodies
Over the last five years, Elder has established a respectable name within the worlds of progressive and psychedelic heavy metal. When the band started, they were lumped into the sludge and doom spaces, largely due to an overall heavier aesthetic and the general resistance to calling groups of that particular style prog in the first place. Listening to their records up to Dead Roots Stirring, it's not hard to see where people would come at that understanding of things. After all, for years and years, the relation of groups like Neurosis, Rwake, and The Atlas Moth to progressive music was obscured, owing largely to a combination of the severance of psychedelia from progressive music as well as cultural perceptions of the genre, a sense that you more or less had to sound just like Yes or King Crimson for it to count.
But then, somewhere between the release of the Spires Burn/Release EP (2012) and their third full-length Lore (2015), there was a notable shift. The band no longer felt sludgy, with the constant warm wall of fuzz we associate with the style replaced by a cleanliness and almost country-ish twang to the rolling guitar licks that more immediately brings to mind guitar players like Steve Howe. "Compendium," the opening track from Lore, felt not only like the best song Elder had written at that time (and a fine way to kick off a record and new phase in the band's career) but also a clarifying mission statement for the group.
It caused a backward gazing eye to catch something: that they'd always been this band buried beneath the fuzz and album art aesthetic typical in the scene at the time, always had wielded these long, coiling prog/psych jams that felt like a honey-warmed hybrid of Crazy Horse and a dash of the guitarisms and melodicism of Dinosaur Jr., all wrapped up in a metallic plume of smoke.
Now, Elder is not radically different on Omens than on Reflections of a Floating World (2017) or the startlingly beautiful instrumental The Gold & Silver Sessions EP (2019), because why should they be? This is a type of music that, when done right, becomes the lifesblood of many a band's career, with numerous groups within the canon of prog, psychedelia, and space-rock living comfortably within these halls for decades. Some things, like Elder, already feel like the perfect form of themselves and only need continued iteration to remain pleasurable and meaningful, rather than other spaces which require more discrete evolution and noticeable change to recharge things.
One key element, though, and one that has steadily been on the increase since Lore's release, is the presence of synthesizers and organs. This is something much to the benefit of the band and these songs, often adding not just a direct sense of lineage to progressive rock but also a clear and cutting timbre that helps make these lengthy songs feel eventful all the way through. Lengthy material in heavy metal or prog is in no way new, and tediously belaboring the idea of long songs is thin, but one compositional challenge with them is making that time feel earned by being eventful, either as the payoff to some previously established tension or building tension for some later payoff. Elder have only gotten better and better at grasping that as time goes on: they've always lived in these spans of time, having given up more concise statements just after their debut, and while their lengthy songs have been compelling since Dead Roots Stirring, it's hard to argue that they haven't gotten better and better at it.
Elder's type of music leans on repetition, drawing from psychedelia, krautrock, and space rock in its usage of slowly evolving passages, and the group has clearly paid close attention to how the greats fold in one or two new discrete ideas and sonic textures every few bars to make those long slow evolutionary spans feel rewarding.
This compounds with the distinct alt-rock influences splattered all over the record, mostly felt in their construction of melodies and harmonies. Very little of Omens feels discretely "heavy metal," especially when stacked against recent records from groups like Cirith Ungol and Traveler which feel like they outline much more clearly the central pillar of what we consider metal (though obviously deviations exist from that model). Where before the fuzzed-out walls of heavy sound brought to mind perhaps the world of Lo-Pan and other bottom-heavy metal-adjacent rock bands, Elder now seems more in tune with unfolding melodies in the midst of instrumentally focused and math-tinged psychedelia.
This approach seems to be the fitting evolutionary path for the group; their sense of melody here gets better album to album, and Omens is no exception, holding especially in the instrumental stretches of "Embers" and album closer "One Light Retreating" some of their most profoundly beautiful music to date. This is due to (and not in spite of) the directional shift to less explicitly metal directions, trusting that psychedelia, prog, and a knack for winning melodies will see them through.
This increase in the presence of alt-rock, from the rambling and earthy fuzzed out psychedelia of Neil Young's seminal records with Crazy Horse to the likewise all-time great guitar rock from J. Mascis and others in Dinosaur Jr., seems to resonate with Elder's latest vocals as well. And this strikes at perhaps the only weak element of the record, depending on where you stand. Fan response to the vocal affect of Omens seems to be split, with some finding Nicholas DiSalvo's voice with a fitting adjustment to the increased warmth and rockiness of the group. Others, though, find the vocals a bit too nasal and untrained, wanting something either gruffer or more trained and precise.
While I find them deeply pleasing and inseparable from these songs now, I have to confess my first few spins sat in the latter category. I struggled to understand why they would derail such transcendentally beautiful instrumental passages with vocals that felt closer to what I remember from alt-rock radio growing up than either a burly Mastodon bark or a sweetened Porcupine Tree half-whine. As I mentioned, they've since grown on me and feel proper, their slight weakness being a charming affect now rather than a detraction, like the guitarist was so overwhelmed by emotion and song in their instrumental passages that he couldn't help but tilt to the mic and let it all out, but it's impossible not to note they are at bare minimum a weaker component than the music itself.
When you have to struggle to find a weakness in a record, though, that's a pretty good sign it's damn near impeccable. What wasn't mentioned was Elder's remarkable band-focused telekinesis, having both a remarkable sense of rubato and rhythm and pulse as well as a maturity to check overplaying in the interest of that slow and powerful unfurling mentioned before.
There's little in the way of purely novel and new ideas for either the group or broader psychedelic music on Omens, but that's okay because these songs are just a kiss shy of perfect. There's been rumbling in some corners of this being album of the year, and, in all honesty, you should likely expect to see it on more lists than not. Elder comprises a set of players who focus their virtuosity on songwriting, melodies, and the kind of hyperbolic and joyous band interplay that tend to be the marks of all-timer bands. I wouldn't be surprised if their evolutionary pattern holds and, by their next album, Elder makes little to no sense to feature on a heavy metal site. But if this happens, then it's all the better for Elder as they continue a powerful musical journey.
Omens released last Friday via Armageddon Label.