With the genre hitting its artistic peak in the 1990s, it has been quite some time since a new stoner rock band has come along to truly revolutionise the rock and metal scenes. With even the outfits who helped bring the niche, crossover genre to a more mainstream audience rejecting its label, as was the case with Queens of the Stone Age following the success of their breakout record Rated R, it feels as if it has been a while since the trudging tempos and growling grooves of stoner rock have been covered to an especially detailed degree amongst mainstream music journalism. If there’s any one group with the potential to relight stoner rock’s blunt, that torch would surely be in Elder’s hands. The Boston-based band broke out and began to turn heads with their third album, 2015’s Lore, which also saw a reinvention of their stylings that likely played a substantial role in putting the three-piece on the rock and metal map. Elder’s first two albums played directly to the stoner rock territory paved by the genre’s defining acts — most notably Electric Wizard and Sleep, as well as classic Black Sabbath — whereas Lore saw the integration of progressive song structures and psychedelic undercurrents into the band’s usual sludgy tone. The end product was a record that equalled the vibrancy of its eye-catching artwork with a sound that balanced the dark and dreary mood of doom metal with some surprisingly bright instrumental embellishments and colourful compositional flourishes. Personally, whilst Lore most certainly put Elder on my radar and acted as a promising introduction to their songwriting chops and technical prowess, I nevertheless felt that the group’s influences were worn so clearly on their sleeves, even considering the stylistic adjustments made on the album, that the impression it left on me was somewhat restricted by what came across as a lack of a definitive musical identity. Similarly, as lofty as many of the songs from Lore were, the band had not yet proven themselves entirely capable of bringing their ambitious, progressive compositional approach to complete fruition. In these regards, Elder’s latest record, Reflections of a Floating World, picks up where its predecessor left off stylistically speaking, but thankfully, pushes the outfit towards territory that is less evocative of other artists and is more their own. Needless to say, Reflections of a Floating World wouldn’t be an Elder album if the cues taken from Black Sabbath, Electric Wizard, Sleep, Colour Haze and potentially even more modern bands like Bongripper and Pallbearer weren’t explicit and pervasive, but the substantially broadened sonic and stylistic palette employed by the four-piece across these six new compositions doubles-down on the marked dynamism of Lore, making for an album that is even more animated and spirited, in spite of its slow tempos. Undoubtedly, Reflections of a Floating World makes for a fantastically vivid and engaging listening experience, and exhibits an Elder who are even closer to unlocking their full potential as contemporary stoner rock’s flagship.
Perhaps the most striking element of Reflections of a Floating World upon first listen is, quite simply, how impressively smooth it is. Especially when compared to the progressive edge of Lore, which would sometimes stray towards a feeling of aimlessness, Elder’s latest endeavour is incredibly sleek and polished from a compositional perspective, regardless of the convoluted nature of the serpentine twists and turns that drive these songs. The group wastes no time in putting this message across to the listener, with the first track, Sanctuary, establishing the canvas on which Elder will layer their vital riffage and versatile songcraft. The sounds of the desert are alive and well in the opening riff, as the overlapping textures of crunch that arise from the distorted broken chords and bright but gritty guitar tone capture a classic stoner rock sound. This is bolstered in a big way by the forceful, driving drum work, with the uncharacteristically propulsive groove being potently broken up by accents and punctuated phrasings that hammer home the dynamic quality of the hulking guitar melody. Elder’s greatly expanded compositional arsenal sees many intricate songwriting embellishments seep into the structure of Sanctuary, with a crunchy, phased guitar being juxtaposed against some shimmering, echoed licks that heavily intensify the impact of the ensuing eruption of blaring, bassy guitar tones that lead into the first verse. As Nick DiSalvo’s soaring vocals swoop in, the listener is given a glimpse of the extent to which the frontman’s vocal lines add to the labyrinthine nature of much of Reflections of a Floating World, being played for impact in a way that Elder had yet to fully take advantage of in the past. This is aided significantly by the album’s dazzling production value, which accommodates for the epic highs and the hushed lows of the band’s sonic scope, just as it sees DiSalvo’s singing worked into the record’s soundscapes in an almost atmospheric fashion at times, whilst other instances, such as following the winding and gracefully harmonious instrumental section of Sanctuary, allow room for the singer’s booming, borderline shouted vocals to burst into the song’s explosive climax.
Indeed, Sanctuary is quite the interesting case study for Reflections of a Floating World, as, although it establishes many of the recurring sonic and songwriting elements of the record, it stands alone as the most purely devoted stoner rock track from the album. As the tracklisting unfolds, so do Elder’s noticeably diversified stylistic touchstones, with the album often pulling more from stoner rock’s precursors, such as psychedelic rock, acid rock and progressive rock, more so than stoner rock itself. The Falling Veil, for instance, sees the band’s cascading guitar lines guide the piece into passages of varying tempos, some of which are considerably more upbeat than one would typically expect from an Elder song based on their previous output. The melodic craftwork flaunted through the sinuous guitar riffs featured on The Falling Veil reaches math rock levels of technical intricacy at times, whilst some of the song’s propulsive grooves strongly allude to hard rock’s blues-based incarnations. Such a protean compositional approach only fortifies the overall dynamism of Reflections of a Floating World, which potentially reaches its peak on Starving Off Truth, wherein Elder brandish their linear compositional dexterity in the form of a song that ceaselessly pushes forward, unfurling into refreshing and unpredictable shapes that bend to the will of the band’s heightened artistic reach. Case in point, the quartet have found a firm footing in the prog rock arena to the point that even the shimmering keyboard interlude of Starving Off Truth is worked relatively seamlessly into the cut. It’s on Blind, however, wherein Elder’s reverence for progressive rock and metal is pushed to its limits, and rather fittingly, given its positioning as the longest song in the tracklisting, at 13 and a half minutes in length. Likewise, in being the fourth of the six songs from the record, it would seem as if Blind is intended as the centrepiece of Reflections of a Floating World, with the cut appropriately incorporating some of the most decadent arrangements from the entire album into its anfractuous being, making use of a bright acoustic guitar and fluttering keyboard lines to provide counterpoint to the growling guitar tones. A great deal of the composition convulses amidst melodic and rhythmic capriciousness, in a manner that is undoubtedly engaging from the listener’s perspective, whilst existing in direct contrast to the succeeding song, Sonntag, which is driven forward by a constant crescendo in the form of an unwinding, psyched-out jam. What this demonstrates is both a willingness and an ability to employ progressive stylistic principles into several types of song structure and execution, which Elder, on Reflections of a Floating World, manage to handle in a way that teeters towards over-indulgence or aimlessness considerably less than on Lore, with the band instead following through with the fluidity required to cogently pull off such an undertaking.
Although previous releases from Elder had proven the band to retain both the technical and compositional dexterity to effectuate the audacious songwriting scope for which they seemed to be striving on Lore, their occasional susceptibility to stagnation stymied their efforts from ever completely actualising this ambition. Reflections of a Floating World, however — whilst not without its own instances of languor, particularly during the prolonged jams of songs like Sonntag — is a huge leap in the right direction for the group, considerably increasing their compositional capacity and sonic scope. Similarly, although there still exists considerable room for improvement when it comes to shaking off the assertive influence of the outfit’s artistic inspirations, this newest album also brings the band closer to their own distinct niche within the stoner rock paradigm, primarily resulting from DiSalvo’s increased individuality as a frontman, as well as the broadened timbre of the album. With perhaps the greatest success of Reflections of a Floating World being its vitality and colour, arising from the broad palette of ideas employed throughout its runtime, Elder have crafted a record that is far too vivid and arresting to not pave the way for the outfit to potentially play an even bigger role in the stoner rock scene in the future.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10