When Boston trio Elder dropped their self-titled debut on MeteorCity in 2008, it was clear the band had potential. What’s most interesting about the follow-up, Dead Roots Stirring (also MeteorCity), is how that potential has played out. Where the first album was heavily indebted to Sleep’s stoner caravanning and dropping out of life, the new five-song collection has expanded Elder’s reach sonically, branching into a more complex realm of psychedelic melody. The short version is that Elder have grown up a lot in three years, and Dead Roots Stirring sounds like they picked up a few really killer records along the way to cull influence from. Guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo is still in the forward position in the band, with bassist Jack Donovan and drummer Matt Couto locking into a string of excellent grooves beneath memorable hooks and far-out extended instrumental breaks. Elder takes full advantage of the trio format in that regard, more so than on the Elder album; the tracks on Dead Roots Stirring are longer on average, with the shortest being centerpiece “III” at 8:43 (three of five on the debut were shorter), and the time isn’t misspent. The band proves almost immediately on 9:40 opener “Gemini” that they’re able just as well to hypnotize as engage, and the album as a whole benefits from the flow they craft from song to song. At 51 minutes, it seems like a lot, and there are moments where parts can feel incongruous relative to elsewhere, but for the most part, Elder’s stated potential has paid off in an unexpected and exciting way.
One can hear a variety of influences at play on “Gemini,” including the modern heavy psych style you might expect to come more from Tee Pee Records, but what really makes the track notable is that it sets the tone for much of what DiSalvo has to offer lead-wise for Dead Roots Stirring. He adds flourishes layered in with the riffs that shine through the well-weighted Justin Pizzoferrero mix (Black Pyramid’s Clay Neely engineered the recording) during the verses and launches near the song’s halfway point into a huge and ripping but still clearly constructed Hendrixian solo. His guitar winds up providing the apex of Dead Roots Stirring later on closer “Knot,” so to have it also elicit the first mini-culmination of “Gemini” – the chorus of the song is also one of the album’s most memorable, relying on a simplistic delivery of “I’m coming home/It’s been so long” – is fitting on a structural level and a move that I don’t know if Elder had in them the first time around. Not to harp on the point, but DiSalvo also adds repeated high notes during the instrumental stretch nearer to the end of the song, and it’s a case of knowing how to do more with less, not just showing off one’s ability to scale like a madman at all times. Couto, whose drums sound full as he rattles the toms with two minutes to go, scores a build with Donovan adding a righteously Euro-derived warmth to the overarching groove when the riff comes back in to end the song.
Donovan and Couto begin the title-track as well, which is the longest cut on Dead Roots Stirring at a full 12 minutes. As much as DiSalvo is out front in the band’s sound, as ever for heavy rock, it’s the rhythm section that carries the song over. “Dead Roots Stirring” has more of an instrumental sprawl than the opener, seems to be on not so short a leash, and the parts allowed to range further and jam out more. That being the case, though, Elder still work an enticing chorus into the fray, or at least a standout recitation of the song and album’s titular line. Compared to the vocal-less “III” which follows, “Dead Roots Stirring” is among the album’s more straightforwardly stoner songs, at least as far as the riffs go, but it’s worth noting that even if that’s the case, it’s still more complex than almost anything they concocted on the first album. “III” marks a tonal change to a rich and bright sound – especially from Donovan, who provides his best performance on bass for the track – that stands in contrast to Dead Roots Stirring’s otherwise gorgeously painted Adrian Dexter artwork, which although deep and moving, does little to complement the blinding oranges and yellows the song puts before the eyes. DiSalvo makes his lead at the end of “Gemini” seem maximal in comparison.
Following a quiet and somehow windy build with flowing tom runs from Couto, DiSalvo authoritatively plucks a punctuating single-note lead – it almost has a laser-noise effect – but with Donovan’s foundation underneath, it marks one of Elder’s most mature moments on Dead Roots Stirring. The track later smoothes its way into a fluid multi-layered riff, DiSalvo harmonizing with himself on guitar, before bringing the acoustics back in and reminding the listener of how far they’ve come. Volume swells do a lot of work in that regard, but the end of the track is a delight for anyone who appreciates well-thought-out fuzz, and a contemplative moment’s breath before “The End” comes on slow and quiet. Probably worth noting it’s not a Doors cover, but instead, probably the most guitar-centric cut on a guitar-centric album. DiSalvo goes over the top with leads, and it’s a sound journey leading to the more compressed ‘90s style buzzsaw tone later in the song (Smashing Pumpkins gone stoner rock, maybe?) that in turn makes its way back to the initial nod-inducer of a riff for the outro, which curiously drops to amp noise and leads directly into the finale, “Knot” (11:56). Elder’s had a remarkable flow all along on Dead Roots Stirring, but “The End” into “Knot” is the most overt of the transitions, and it’s curious that they’d put it at the end. Maybe they figured by then anyone listening would be so hooked they’d just go with it, and they’re probably right in that regard, since most who take on the album will doubtless already be well indoctrinated into the genre from which it stems (or at least a willing participant in said indoctrination), so what the hell? It works.
The bass tone from Donovan is again one of Elder’s best assets on “Knot,” and Couto nails it, simply put, but once more it’s DiSalvo charged with providing the culmination of the song. In its opening minutes, it seems like mostly a retread of what Elder has already achieved elsewhere, but a break at about three minutes in brings more of a shuffle feel to the track that carries through the second quarter, setting up a quick shift and the semi-noisy build that plays out – solely instrumentally – to end Dead Roots Stirring, DiSalvo ready with a new solo at almost every change. They bring it back to one of the earlier riffs for the last minute or so, and then cut out abruptly enough to imagine DiSalvo and Donovan clicking off their pedals at the end of a set. For anyone who was exposed to Elder on their self-titled, as good as that album was, I don’t think it’s ample preparation for the growth they’ve undertaken here. Dead Roots Stirring is a different league of release, notable not for the influences it utilizes, but for the originality and personality it constructs from those influences. Thematically, they seem to still be in a kind of epic storytelling mode (no lyrics are included with the album), but it’s hard not to read a personal element into music that’s so obviously heartfelt. If Elder were going to be the vanguard for post-Gen-X American riffing before, Dead Roots Stirring shows they feel no need to stick to such limitations. Highly recommended.
Tags: Boston, Elder, Massachusetts, MeteorCity