Do you like riffs? Do you like riffs so much that you feel like what you should do is interrupt riffs to add more riffs? Have you ever said to yourself “this riff needs more riffage”? Well, if that’s the case, I assume you are already familiar with Elder, but if not, Omens continues their riffy trend with cleaner vocals, more synths, and their signature articulate fuzzy guitar tone. They’ve come a long way from their early stoner doom roots with an album that is refined and masterfully produced.
I once tried to pitch Lore, their 2015 juggernaut, to a friend as “Stone Temple Pilots but heavier and more progressive,” and at the time, that album was simply too heavy for his tastes. Well, Omens continues the refinement of Elder’s sound from the trajectory started with Reflections of a Floating World in 2017, and I think this time I have a shot of getting him on board the Elder train. The riffs still do that Elder thing, and the guitars are still a fuzzy delight, but between the more spacious mix, liberal use of synths, Rhodes piano, and clean vocals, it’s easy to pitch Omens as a rock album instead of a metal album.
I don’t know what it is about Elder that is so uniquely Elder. Maybe it’s the lead guitar work, with flairs and flourishes that grab my ear and say, yes, this sounds fantastic. Perhaps it’s the extremely articulate fuzz tone, the generous use of arpeggiated chords, and letting strings and harmonics ring out. Whatever the source of the spell, the magic obviously comes from Nick DiSalvo, given that Omens brings in a second guitarist and new drummer. The man knows his riffs.
Where this album differs strongly from the rest of their discography is the tameness with which it delivers the riffage and epic soundscapes. The fuzz isn’t grinding your face off, even though it’s still there. The vocals are mixed higher without the comforting embrace of reverb and a deep mix, and I’ll be the first to admit that initially it was a pretty big shock to the system. Despite all this, I pushed through my first reaction of “oh my god what have they done” because it’s Elder and they have definitely earned the benefit of the doubt. Once I acclimated, it’s clear that this is still the same Elder it has always been. I was flipping between albums as I wrote this and there’s just no actual difference worth worrying about. I always find myself randomly humming Elder riffs, and like Reflections, the riffs from Omens have simply melded into every other Elder riff. I couldn’t tell you from memory which riff is on which album, but it doesn’t matter because unlike some bands which just make the same album over and over, every Elder album is distinctly separate, but still clearly Elder.
There are very few bands out there that manage to achieve a level of creativity where two things are true: first, that you can identify their music almost instantly, even if it’s new stuff you’ve never heard; and second, that very few other bands ever manage to sound similar without sounding a little too on the nose with their influence. Gojira is one. Devin Townsend is clearly another. Elder is absolutely part of that esteemed company. And while I will occasionally find (and love!) albums which are clearly pulling from Elder, they never quite match the level of creativity and that certain something.
It’s almost difficult to grasp how much that certain something improves with every album. Everything since Lore has felt like perfection, including their experimental The Gold & Silver Sessions. Yet here they are again in 2020 with another album I am happy to call perfect. You can trace a trajectory through all their albums and visualize the spiral that’s zeroing in on their ideal target. Each album is similar enough that they remain in the same localized musical space, yet the differences are notable enough that it’s clearly not a straight line. With each release they curve a little bit away from what you expect, and still manage to produce a wild musical ride.
It is also hard to oversell how brilliantly mixed and produced this album is. The ever-present Rhodes and synths fade in and out of the spotlight, but take center stage in a brilliant passage of “In Procession” where the keys lead, with right guitar and left guitar playing the same riff. A transition in “Omens” where the song goes from uplifting and happy to unsettling with the fade-in of harmonic dissonance is one of my favorite moments on the album. The pounding drums with the combo of synths and bending harmonics in the latter half bridge of “Halcyon” has stuck with me since I first heard it. The addition of a new guitarist comes into play with many right and left call and response guitar parts; something that stands out compared to previous albums. The bass is cleaner this time around, still riding a driven edge but far from the grinding distortion of earlier albums, and it holds everything together all the more because of it. Each instrument has a lot of breathing room, really bringing a good pair of headphones to life and making it feel like you are sitting in a room with the band playing around you. And unlike previous albums, the mix on the guitars is clean enough that I feel like if I wanted to learn it by ear, I could do it a hell of a lot easier than in the past. All in all this clearly feels like a more mature album, that of a band willing to leave all the little tricks that let you hide the small imperfections at the door, and to just shout “yeah, we can do this!”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the album touches on one of my favorite topics: the doom of western civilization. In these tumultuous times, it’s hard not to read the lyrics of “Embers” and see it as a deep and depressive hopelessness when looking towards our future. The lyric “everything is all that will remain” seems a subtle but clear statement that we have reached our pinnacle, and all that is left in our future is destruction. We won’t become more than we currently are. The rising notes of the last half of the song flounder into a distorted layer of guitar over top of a repeating piano riff while a melancholy lead guitar comes in to play out this theme. The stanza “Carrying the voiceless in a hope, And a hope within a sound, Burning down to ash to disappear, Without a trace upon the ground” lends even more credence to this idea; our hope will amount to nothing, and in the end will have nothing to show for it. Musically, however, “One Light Retreating” suggests that maybe this won’t actually be the case. Despite starting somber and moody, and after a false ending, the song picks up again, reusing previous themes and ending on a positive and upbeat note. This tracks with my own optimism in that I refuse to believe that this is where our story ends. We’re at a major turning point, and in the end, Omens seems to say, we’ll cross the rubicon, and be all the better for it.
As you may be able to tell, I am an unabashed Elder fan, and despite being absolutely crushed that I have yet to catch one of their concerts (with the next date postponed due to the pandemic), I take solace in the fact that they’ve dropped yet another winner in my lap. I am exceedingly grateful to have been able to listen to it early and write so much about it, and it’s definitely one of the albums that is going to help carry me through 2020. Omens is everything I want in an Elder album, or any album for that matter. It will feature highly on my year end list, I am sure, despite this only being April. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to it again.