Elder is one of those bands that, if you ask a dozen people do describe their sound, will bring you a dozen potentially different answers built around the same few buzz words: "Psychedelic." "Stoner." "Prog." "Rock." "Metal." Part of that has to do with how the band has tweaked and changed their sound over nine releases spanning fourteen years; perhaps more instrumental to those varied answers is the way they continue to incorporate where they've been with where they're going. Each Elder album weaves and swirls in ways that are at once unexpected and comfortably familiar. Omens, the band's fifth full-length album which drops this Friday, continues that trend with glorious aplomb.
I believe the title track to an album should serve as a sort of thesis statement of the album as a whole. "Omens" definitely achieves that, beginning with a keyboard melody and building deftly into a series of expansive yet introspective jams that are a perfect snapshot of what Omens will be. Elder excels at this type of music, prog that doesn't sound too wanky or noodly, and stops this shy of sounding like the kind of improvised jam you'd get from The Dead or other similar bands. The effect of Elder's lineup change, adding second guitarist Mike Risberg and guest keyboardist Fabio Cuomo, is also instantly palpable, and the texture and nuance of "Omens" carries over through the rest of the album.
"In Procession" features a truly great "mid-song jam portion" of Omens, which isn't unexpected in and of itself, as the "mid-song jam portion" of Elder songs typically register as my favorite. A surprising thing happened coming out of this one though. I've often wondered if Elder would be better served as an instrumental band; Nick DiSalvo's vocals are fine, but when every other part of your band is exemplary, "fine" tends to come across as a bit more negative than it should. For whatever reason, after the bridge of "In Procession," something about his vocals clicked for me, and for the first time I really appreciated them. I've listened to Omens a half dozen more times since, and the feeling has remained. The vocals feel more incorporated with the music than on past Elder albums, and Omens (and Elder) is much stronger because of it.
I realized we rarely include band photos in reviews, so here's a picture of Elder
"Halcyon" begins with a spacey groove of a melody that seems tailor-made for getting lost in while floating in a pool with an ice-cold beverage of your choosing. Even when things ramp up and get considerably heavier, a delicate keyboard riff remains underneath it, tying you to that mellow beginning of the song. Omens is a long album, and of it's just shy of an hour run time, "Halcyon" takes up almost thirteen minutes. Yet neither feel song nor album overstay their welcome, and both are supremely rewarding as either intensely scrutinized listens or jams in the background while imbibing in the aforementioned pool. As a matter of fact, Omens is the kind of album that you can just put on repeat for the day, sliding in and out of daydreams for as long as you're conscious.
Lest you feel that my focus on the more groovy, jam-like portions of Omens means the band forgot to bring their riffs, "Embers" opens up with one of the best, most exciting guitar parts the band has ever recorded. It's expansive, bright, and rousing; a shot of adrenaline delivered straight through your ears. "Embers" takes this brightness and runs with it, but there's an underlying sense of melancholy that makes the song feel like a warm Sunday afternoon in the fall; you have to work in the morning, and you know that this could be the last really good Sunday for a while, so you desperately want to enjoy it. According to the press release we received, Elder wrote Omens "as a concept album spanning the lifespan of a civilization," so it makes sense that the penultimate track would have a little bit of sadness running through it. That sadness moves from the background to the forefront during the last four minutes of "Embers," a cathartic, escalating drive by the band that ends with the howling guitars giving way to keyboard effects and fading out into nothingness.
"One Light Retreating" is the perfect track to wrap up Omens, as it takes all of the bombastic riffs and more introverted moments and finds ways to push them even further into the ether. It's also perhaps the most surprising song on the album, in that it lulls you into a false sense of feeling like you know exactly where it's going and how it's going to play out, only to pull the rug out from you and change direction entirely. By the time it ends, you're ready to fire up "Omens" and start the journey over again.
Omens is not only an early contender for Album of the Year, but it places Elder squarely and unequivocally as the best rock or metal band on the planet. They have yet to release an album that cannot be at least considered "good," and including Omens, their last three full-lengths are unassailable classics that are not only among the best albums of their respective years, but also the last quarter century. No matter what adjectives you use to describe their sound, it is a sound that has become unmistakably their own, and has been polished and perfected over the past five years without becoming boring or stale. Elder, right now, reminds me of Pink Floyd in the '70s, making music that is at once thought-provoking and accessible, technically precise while catchy, and seemingly destined to be remembered in decades to come. Omens is a showcase of a band not only at the top of their game, but on top of the musical world.