Reflections Of A Floating World – Vinyl // CD // DD
Stickman Records/Armageddon Label – Release Date: June 2nd, 2017
Reviewed by Andy “Dinger” Beresky
Today I’m going to talk a little about conflicts of interest. That’s a pretty scarce topic in the realm of the music world, though for me, it’s always that proverbial elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, or even acknowledge. Why? Because conflicts of interest is pretty much business as usual in the music biz and I don’t think that it’s often on people’s collective radars as a result. Why am I choosing this particular topic as the item of interest du jour? Because in full disclosure, I’ve had a long history with Elder, and I’d hate for any of you to think that my objective subjectivity could be in any way tainted by either personal interests or outside influences.
If you think about it, it’s fairly obvious why Elder and Black Pyramid would have so much history. Both bands were coming into their own around the same time, in the same geographic area, Massachusetts, initially playing a similar style of post-Sleep stoner doom, and we were both signed to the same label, Meteorcity. We often shared billings on New England shows, heck I remember playing basement shows in Providence, Rhode Island with these guys before any of them were even old enough to drink legally (they didn’t let that stop them). I borrowed Nick’s amplifier at the Stoner Hand Of Doom festival when the reverb tank of my trusty Ampeg V-4 went to shit and took the rest of the amp with it. I went out and bought a Soundcity 120 like his afterwards, and eventually Jack from Elder used it as a bass amp when we were sharing a bill in Keene, New Hampshire. I slept on Matt’s sister’s couch after a High On Fire show in Boston, and I don’t think that she was particularly pleased to wake up to a strange hairy beardo, so I quickly made myself scarce. Even when I had taken a full hiatus from music, Nick gently urged me back to towards playing again, and Matt encouraged me to come over to jam with he and Nick, as they were both living in Western Mass. at the time. This is an offer that I sadly declined, but that’s besides the point. The point is, these guys were my brothers-in-arms, my friends and my musical family, so obviously I have every reason to write them a glowing review, right?
This seems like a particularly pertinent time for this discussion because I don’t think that anyone is going to dispute that Elder are amazing, so my glowing review is just going to be E Pluribus Unum, one of many, out of the many, one, par for the course. I don’t think anyone would seriously question my journalistic integrity because of this review….well, no more than they normally would anyways. It’s not like I’m writing that some previously unknown and seemingly mediocre band is the greatest thing since sliced pepperoni pizza and cheap beer, and you later find out that they’re actually my drinking buddies and pizza pals. That would of course be highly suspect, wouldn’t it? But Elder have rightfully earned their place in the pantheon of heavy psychedelic rock, so I’m considering myself relatively safe.
As I’ve written in past reviews, I shouldn’t be safe. You shouldn’t inherently trust my opinion. You shouldn’t inherently trust any reviewer’s opinion, really. Most of those opinions will be rife with conflicting interests: the desire to see their favorite bands succeed, wanting to do favors for friends, wanting to please the powers that be, mainly the labels that are supplying them with free music, etc. It becomes a bit like politics – the longer someone is in the game, the more they start to develop relationships that serve themselves rather than the constituency they initially aimed to and still claim to serve. Eventually the conflicting motivations become deeply embedded, unconscious, second nature. Many reviewers are nothing more than wannabe taste makers who think that they should personally possess the power to decide who succeeds and who does not. Many write for the sake of their own ego, getting off on their own wordiness and acclaim as writers rather than the music that they supposedly serve. Many simply follow trends, or just write safe as milk, formulaic reviews because it pays the bills. No one is totally pure or entirely immune, no matter how noble their initial intent. It eventually becomes all about influence. In the end, in some way, shape and form, they all end up serving The Threefold God Of Influence: Power, Fame, Money. They are under the influence. You can’t trust them. You can’t trust me. I have my own agenda; it’s just not any of those particular things, is it?
On their first album, Elder had a song called “The Riddle Of Steel.” I’m sure most of you are familiar with the original Conan The Barbarian movie, where Conan’s father waxes poetic about trust. He talks about how you can’t trust anything in this world except your sword. Wise words, though I believe that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and that’s the crux of my agenda. I’ll tell you who I believe that you should trust: trust your own taste and opinion. Trust yourself. Think for yourself. Choose for yourself. This, this you can trust.
The subject matter of Elder’s latest magnum dopus also makes my rant timely, as it ties right into the themes of the album itself. In many ways, I believe that Elder and I are actually saying the same things through different mediums, though I’m much more blunt about it while they utilize an elaborate allegory, mainly that of the floating world. Known as Ukiyo, the term is a reference to life in urban Japan during its period of high feudalism. The typical Japanese city-dweller would embrace the many aspects of Ukiyo: the beauty, the artistry, the culture, along with the flip side, the decadence and the corruption, whereas the Buddhists saw the floating world as the very apotheosis of the dualistic illusions from which they sought to escape.
The music industry, in many ways, is much like the floating world, and I’m fairly certain that despite their youth, they’ve been in it deep enough and long enough to recognize the similarities. On Reflections Of A Floating World, it’s unclear if Elder are holding up a mirror to the conflicting realities of modern life, or directly commenting on music in the way that I’ve chosen to in the context of this review. I suppose that in the end, it doesn’t really matter, as our precious little music scene is nothing if not a microcosm of a larger cultural phenomena. I truly don’t think that we can separate one from the other – great art in my book will always be relevant to what is going on at the moment; it will always harness the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, the collective unconscious, first and foremost as its muse. That’s what makes music feel immediate. It’s what makes it sound urgent.
This to me is Elder’s crowning achievement. Many people loved Lore. It was good and in many ways a high point stylistically, though I found it to be a bit disjointed, in both flow and execution. It seemed largely like a transitional album, a band trying out new things and new directions, and despite its reception and overall promise, there was something off about it for me, something strangely stunted and one dimensional. Not a popular opinion, I’m well aware, and I don’t care. I could give two shits about popular opinion, and so should you. Reflections Of A Floating World is superior in my opinion, for many reasons. First and foremost, Nick’s vocals are better than they’ve ever been. You may or may not recall that on the earliest of Elder releases, his vocals were basically sludge-based screams and growls. He’s gradually adopted a cleaner style with each release, and with Reflections Of A Floating World, he’s settled into a style which emphasizes a more high pitched register while keeping the melodies relatively simple. It works well – he doesn’t really sound like anyone else, and his approach doesn’t overshadow Elder’s strongest element, their compositional prowess. Sure, they’re still largely monotonal, there’s little movement melodically, though they’re not the key ingredient to what makes this album shine. It’s all about the instruments. Sometimes less is more, and I believe that vocals should always be considered just another instrument in the overall mix.
Throughout the course of six songs and sixty odd minutes, Elder essentially put on a clinic , divine a prophecy, show us the future of a genre that’s badly in need of reinvention. The structure, writing, and production of this album is nothing short of stellar. Seriously. This is a landmark album. This will come to be considered one of the high water marks, an album that will come to define and even re-define the genre. I don’t say this lightly, and I’m honored to know these cats. I’ve never heard a “stoner” album with such a nuanced atmosphere, such a multitude and magnitude of textures. There’s all sorts of amazing tones and effects on the guitars, and the addition of a second guitar has certainly added an entire other dimension to Elder’s sound. I have a feeling that it mostly gives Nick more freedom and breathing room to lay down leads and still have a foundation of riffs underneath, and there are also lots of cool harmonized and orchestrated guitar parts throughout. Despite the fact that this cat can rip it up, Nick’s guitar work is largely restrained; the solos are sparse and never come off as showboating. They’re tailor made for whatever each musical moment requires, and flashy or not, Elder set their fretboards ablaze with the light of inspiration, passion, and intent. There’s also some flourishes of piano, keyboard, Theremin and mellotron at crucial points to add to the atmosphere. It’s all very well done and never over the top – the album retains a nice balance throughout. The rhythm section perfectly compliments this dynamic, lingering underneath with a pulsing intensity, though never overshadowing the whole or eclipsing the entirety. The clarity of the production allows all of these elements to simultaneously shine.
It’s worth mentioning that this album is a bit long in the tooth. Each of these six songs is an epic in and unto itself, with the first four clocking in at over the 10 minute mark, and the longest at nearly 13 minutes and a half minutes. Even the Krautrock influenced instrumental, “Sonntag”, is eight minutes and forty seconds. That’s a lot to take in, especially with all the detail that’s gone into crafting this record. It demands active engagement on the part of the listener in order to appreciate the album’s nuances. Maximum attentions reaps maximum rewards.
Elder have already proven themselves to be quite a force, through the strength of both their recorded output and their live performances. They’ve toured all over the world, playing to audiences both big and small. It’s hard to imagine they won’t be riding a wave of buzz and critical acclaim after this album drops, though it’s also tough to tell where their path will ultimately lie. Surely more doors will open, more opportunities present themselves, though will this lead Elder deeper into the musical equivalent of The Floating World, or will it allow them the freedom to carve their own niche and to divine their own personal path?