A new release from a beloved band is a chance to once again reconsider the question of identity. Like any artistic endeavor, an album is, on many levels, an expression of personality and a many-pronged statement of values, method, and taste on the part of those involved in its creation. Admittedly, this question occurs at different levels of complexity depending on the artist and the release: a new release from Electric Wizard or Dream Theater prompts a very different navigation in this manner than a release by, say, Ihsahn or Kayo Dot. That’s not to say that the latter artists are better than the former (or vice versa) so much as it is to say that as an artist or band becomes more prone to shifts in sound, as they become more mutable and experimental, there is a corresponding increase in the amount of time it takes to excavate a personal identity and throughline that attaches new works to a previous canon.
Elder sits in a comfortable spot on this spectrum. Across their discography thus far, they’ve reinvented themselves several times: first, in the transition from their debut self-titled record – a trudging, sludgy, sword-and-sorcery affair – to the inimitable and phenomenal bluesy stoner doom of Dead Roots Stirring; a second time in the transition from that to the progressive heavy psych odyssey that is Lore (cards on the table, one of my favorite metal albums of all time), with the EP Spires Burn/Release acting as something of a “missing link” between these evolutions; third, in their movement towards a more airy and less metal sound on The Gold and Silver Sessions following Lore’s sequel Reflections of a Floating World, which shows the band exploring their krautrock and psychedelic rock influences; and finally now in the transition into Omens, an album that has Elder flexing their progressive rock muscles heavily and exploring a lighter and less aggressive sound than any LP from them has portrayed yet. Each time, they have shed and accumulated detritus in equal measure, never losing themselves in their course but altering as they will while keeping a common itinerary.
If we were to simplify Elder’s sound – their core personality and methodology as a band – to its most basic components, we would find three fundamental elements at the core of their identity. The first of these is a clear respect for the classics of rock; in their sound it’s easy to identify moments and motifs that show a clear admiration for giants of the riff like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, the same devil-may-care attitude towards showing off their technical prowess as salad-days Yes, and the creativity in song structuring as Wetton-era King Crimson (the trilogy of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red, for those not acquainted with the cryptic historiography of the band). The second is a songwriting structure that borders on being dialectical in nature: an Elder song can typically be said to follow a basic pattern – and, again, keep in mind this is a simplification – where heavy, more riff-centric parts are juxtaposed against quiet, pensive, relaxed sections with an increased focus on melody, and this opposition is then overcome in a climactic moment that manages to be both melodic and loud, energetic and elegant, heavy and beautiful. The third core component of Elder’s sound is a graceful and expansive melodic sensibility, an underlying disposition towards chord progressions and resolutions that is always pushing upwards, forwards and outwards, always exploratory and threading disparate parts of songs together with a sense of narrative.
In its adherence to these established tenets of the sound, Omens is very much an Elder album. However, while Omens certainly is cut from the same cloth as its older siblings, it carries some crucial differences. The two most obvious from the beginning are the increased focus on synthesizers and the new prominence placed on frontman/lead guitarist Nick DiSalvo’s vocal performance: neither of these are novel elements in Elder’s sonic palette, but before now these sounds sat comfortably in the background. The addition of Fabio Cuomo in the studio on the Rhodes piano and synthesizers has enabled the synths to trade the limelight off with the guitars, opening up a whole new range of textures for the group to integrate into their sound and opportunities to explore melodies and chords even further. (The same can be said of Michael Risberg’s guitar work: he’s played live with the band for a little while but finally is part of the studio process.) The other change – the newfound placement of DiSalvo’s singing front and center – seems motivated by the same basic impulse as the raised importance of synthesizers; it adds a new melodic element that can be explored, and it serves as another piece of the puzzle to take the focus away from the guitarwork that has previously been the sole central draw of Elder’s sound.
Speaking of the guitars, it’s clear a new disposition towards the characteristics of the guitarwork is in effect as well on Omens. As the change from Dead Roots Stirring to Lore saw Elder downsizing from monolithic doom metal fuzz to a brighter and more balanced tone (albeit one still plenty heavy), the change from Reflections of a Floating World to Omens has the band taking that next step in the same direction, towards something with a degree more clarity and less aggression. Make no mistake, these are still clearly artisans of heavy metal at work, and there are thunderous moments on Omens, but by and large the guitars are more subdued than they’ve ever been.
So what does this all mean for the sound of Omens? Well, it is, in a word, lighter than any of its predecessors. It’s less aggressive, more pensive, and more melodically lush than any of Elder’s works to date. There are an order of magnitude more degrees of complexity for the band to play around with courtesy of the reworked dynamics between the guitars, vocals, and synthesizers, and the dulling of their metallic edge means this newfound interplay and its kaleidoscopic result never stumbles over its own momentum or loses its footing due to largesse of scale.
Elder are not shy about showing this off: the eponymous opening track begins with a swell of synthesizer and Rhodes piano that leads the song even as the guitars come in, and when DiSalvo’s vocals join in around the two-minute mark, they take center stage above all the instrumentation. It’s a powerful statement of intent, and the rest of “Omens” continues in stride. The track marks a pensive route until an explosive moment about two-thirds of the way through; Elder returns to the sprint that characterized their earlier works and takes flight almost instantaneously. It’s here that Omens first shows off a peculiar strength that other Elder albums were lacking: the newfound lightness and increased focus on the band’s more ethereal side means that the heavy and fast moments hit with an intense, frantic energy that none of their previous works had the dynamism and contrast to muster. Follower “In Procession” takes this energy and runs wild with it in the song’s first half; the first five minutes and change are easily the most similar Elder get on the record to their last sound. Coupled with the second half – a spaced-out instrumental jam, led by a bright synthesizer that would sound right at home on a jazz fusion record – it forms complete, absolute proof of the confidence Elder rightfully have in their shift in focus going into Omens towards a more multifaceted sensibility in their melodies.
“Embers,” the first and only (as of the time of writing this) single, is perhaps the best foot forward Elder could have provided about the sound of Omens overall. From the get-go there’s the familiar, adventurous energy, coupled with this shift in sound and focus. A curt, expressive verse riff and its accoutrements set the path through the beginning of the song before giving way to the sort of exploratory, progressive jams that have only become more and more detailed and layered over the course of Elder’s career, and this energy, a knife’s-edge balance between contemplation and propulsion, carries the rest of the track through. “Embers” has some of the most scaled-out moments of the record, as well, zooming back for expansive sonic vistas that are reminiscent of Lore’s brightest and loftiest peaks. It’s a gorgeous and compelling track, and proudly looks back on the journey Elder have taken in the last several years while also continuing to surge forward.
In summation: Omens is another brilliant step forward for one of contemporary music’s most impressive and powerful rock bands. Though many fans may be surprised, bewildered, or upset to see the group step away from the heavier sound of their past at first, Elder’s spirit shines through in spades all over Omens; the band are clearly still the masters of their craft they’ve been, even if seen through a new light. In fact, it’s only with Omens that Elder are able to make the strongest affirmation of their identity yet: no matter how much they deviate from their metallic origins, their DNA remains the same, and they still possess the cultivated talent, ingenuity, and creativity to continue to release landmark albums for modern heavy music.
Elder are releasing Omens through Stickman Records and Armageddon Shop on April 24th. Get out for a walk on a sunny day (if you can, of course) and throw it on.