There are few things I find more exciting than being blindsided by an album. If it’s a band I know nothing about, or someone’s first record, or some bizarre unexpected twist that I just didn’t see coming, that feeling of being kicked in the ass is just awesome, and that’s exactly what I was met with on my first listen to Velvet Elvis’ In Deep Time. Released in a limited-to-300 LP by Cae-Sur-A that includes a download with the bonus track “Brass Tacks,” lyric sheet and a piece of the actual analog tape onto which the album was recorded — I’m assuming there’s another copy of the masters somewhere else – In Deep Time is the first full-length from the Rochester, New York, five-piece, following 2011’s Favorite Horses EP and a cassette single for the 15-minute track, “No Rules in the Wasteland.” Musically, Velvet Elvis follow a sleek heavy rock course, bolstered by the strong rhythm section of bassist Luke Valchester (also vocals) and drummer Scott Donaldson, the wide-ranging singing of frontwoman Karrah Teague and the varied riffing of guitarists Brandon Henahan and Randall Coon (the latter also vocals), and thematically, the seven tracks toy with themes out of science fiction, including the Blade Runner-referencing opener “Nexus 666” and the open-air post-apocalypse of “Big Game Hunt.” The latter track is the longest on In Deep Time at 8:39 and boasts headphone-worthy heavy psychedelic rock and a soulful performance from Teague, but Velvet Elvis are never too far from the sense of the song, their craft far more cohesive here than the general anticipation of a band’s first album might be. Part of that is unquestionably due to the production – handled (apparently analog) by Sam Polizzi at GFI Studios in Ontario, NY – which is smooth and crisply professional without sacrificing the fuzzy warmth of Henahan and Coon’s guitars or losing hold of the interplay between the front and backing vocals, which makes for a dynamic beginning as soon as the first chorus of “Nexus 666” kicks in and the arrangement of the song becomes more complex.
Velvet Elvis aren’t writing hooks for hooks’ sake, but In Deep Time does have more than a fair share of strong choruses to its credit, the laid back riff and psychedelic lead guitar layering of “Nexus 666” barely scratching the surface of the album’s scope. Likewise, they are heavy when they want to be – six-minute closer “Toothless Moon” is as doomed as anything you could want to put next to it – but still accessible, the album finding rare balance between heavy soul and dynamic approachability. Subtly, Valchester’s bass becomes a striking element in Velvet Elvis’ favor, his weaving around the guitar riffs on “Nexus 666” and even more so on the fuzzy bounce of the following “BM Steed” – on which Teague takes a break during the first verse onto to reemerge backing the chorus while Coon and Valchester handle the second verse, Teague solo for the bridge, then all for the chorus, etc. – and with so much vocal interplay and a build there that’s almost separate from the instruments behind it, it would be easy to lose track of the guitar, bass and drums, but as Teague belts out the lines, “And you can have my heart because it no longer flutters/I don’t need it my love lives on in shames darkening feathers,” the bass is with her every step of the way, gorgeously adding depth to the music so that it’s not about one dominating the other, music vs. vocals, but the two coming together in one adrenaline-rushing swirl. That’s still not the apex of the track, which is heavier and still to come, though it could’ve been for the momentum constructed leading into “Big Game Hunt,” which caps side A with In Deep Time’s most open and psychedelic feel – the guitars at their spaciest and the vocals topping in distant Jefferson Airplane echoes a progression that’s still fuzzed, still friendly and still heavy all at once, Donaldson doing well in keeping the song grounded without over- or under-playing the beat. The guitars of Henahan and Coon seem to circle overhead of the same ideas without ever running into each other tonally, and there are acoustics layered into “Big Game Hunt” before the break around 4:50 and the psych build that ensues from there that just act as one more element furthering the listening experience amid marching extra percussion and the ending question from Teague, “Is your heart too a galaxy like mine?”
On vinyl, side B starts with “Tribal Rape,” but the download and Bandcamp stream offer the ethereal ‘70s boogie shuffle of “Brass Tacks,” which even with the backing oohs and aahs is more grounded by its very nature than was “Big Game Hunt.” It may have been time constraints that kept “Brass Tacks” off the LP, or symmetrical considerations – i.e. keeping the sides even – but the song satisfies nonetheless with all three vocalists coming together in the final minute to repeat the line, “Darling, my sweet thing/Gonna love you till the end of time” before a last-second snare barrage from Donaldson ends the song with a surprising and intense bombast. “Tribal Rape” is a blues riff (it would almost have to be) of a similar shuffling quality to “Brass Tacks,” but fuller in the guitar and with Teague backing herself in the chorus. The title is the most caustic thing about the song, lending a sinister context to the lyrical imagery as Henahan and Coon embark on some of the album’s best lead/riff interplay, bolstered as ever by Valchester’s fill grooves. There’s a bit of psychedelia in the driving lead work of the instrumental second half of the track, but no more than showed up in “Nexus 666,” and indeed the flow of each side of the LP seems to lead toward some culmination, be it the wide spaces of “Big Game Hunt” or the crushing weight of “Toothless Moon” following “Rattleskin Boots,” which seems to be purposefully pointed in the opposite direction of the side A finisher. Even “Rattleskin Boots” shares a similar runtime to “BM Steed” (4:29 as opposed to the earlier track’s 4:18), shorter than most of the rest of In Deep Time, and Valchester’s bass features heavily in the second of side B’s cuts as well as the male vocalists, so there are a few commonalities there. It’s worth emphasizing, however, that Velvet Elvis (why do I keep typing “velvis?”) have a linear, overarching flow as well that one can hear in the download or stream, “Brass Tacks” being well placed to serve as a centerpiece to divide the one side’s progression from the other, upsetting one line and in essence creating another.
And with its mid-period Monster Magnet psychedelic/acoustic riches, “Rattleskin Boots” is not without a personality of its own, whatever else it might share with “BM Steed,” though “Toothless Moon” is automatically a focus point for the second half of In Deep Time, closing out the album as it does with a darker atmosphere contrary to the white on white album artwork but still somehow inevitable given the breadth of the tracks preceding. Following stick clicks from Donaldson and a vocal intro from Teague in a hymnal threatening the rise of the dead, the song lurches to life with thicker fuzz and a classically doomed charge, breaking here and there for soulful verses, but unquestionably delivering In Deep Time’s heaviest crash, villainous and theatrical semi-screamed backing vocals, other shouts, and a constant-feeling low end rumble making “Toothless Moon” all the more vicious moving into its midpoint guitar solo. Just past three minutes, they cut back to the stick clicks, though guitars continue a creepy, menacing (and also sweet) minimal line under Teague’s layers and the music gradually builds back to its full heft, culminating in the stops that pepper the final verse, “All I wanted was a trip to the moon/Did you think I was leaving too soon?/Did you think that you wouldn’t get paid?/Lead me to push me into my grave” before an undead chorus resurfaces to gorgeously lead the way crashing out. Again, it has little musically to do with anything that comes before it, but “Toothless Moon” remains a pivotal moment for Velvet Elvis – not just because it shows their ability to translate their songwriting approach to a variety of moods, but too because it’s a visceral response to the preceding material that still fits in the overall context of the album even as it reshapes what that context is. What does all that mean? It means that much like the entirety of In Deep Time, “Toothless Moon” is a very, very pleasant surprise. And a well-placed one at that, as if Velvet Elvis had chosen to end with the longest track, “Big Game Hunt,” that would’ve left “Toothless Moon” out of place anywhere but where it appears, changing the flow of the album, perhaps irreparably. As it is, however, In Deep Time shows range atmospherically and in its performances, and the band deliver front to back on their first album. I hesitate to call it potential, if only because these songs already sound so arrived sonically, but if In Deep Time is just a hint of things to come from Velvet Elvis, well, there’s a scary thought. I’ll be that much gladder to be blindsided again next time around. Recommended.
Tags: Cae-Sur-A, In Deep Time, New York, Rochester, Velvet Elvis, Velvet Elvis In Deep Time