Easthampton, MA, Dec. 22, 2016 — New England snow peppered the westward Masspike ride to Sonelab in Easthampton, MA, where Elder were working all week on their fourth album. Eight years ago, they made their self-titled debut (discussed here) as a youngling trio loaded with potential who’d already earned a reputation for blowing old dudes off stages. In less than a decade’s time and across the two follow-up records, 2011’s Dead Roots Stirring (review here) and 2015’s Lore (review here), they’ve traveled the world over and become arguably the most pivotal act in the American heavy underground. Released through Stickman Records and Armageddon Shop, Lore was nothing short of a landmark for Elder, as the three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Nick DiSalvo, bassist Jack Donovan and drummer Matt Couto found a way to be heavy and progressive without sacrificing the impact of the one for the nuance of the other, or vice versa. Their cake, had and eaten.
They’d been at Sonelab all week putting pieces together for a crucial follow-up to Lore that, when released in 2017, will also mark their fastest turnaround between albums. The bulk of the recording was done. I pulled into the parking lot outside the studio, which is in a big warehouse space by the American Legion Hall with an independent brewery on either side — Easthampton is a big college area and looks to be gentrifying — and followed the low-end hum into the live room, where Elder were mid-jam. Sonelab engineer Justin Pizzoferrato and graphic artist Adrian Dexter were in the control room, further down the hallway, but in the live room the band was well dug in. A space longer than it was wide, with high ceilings — Pizzoferrato‘s recordings have a distinct snare drum sound, and with the space in question I immediately recognized its origin as Couto played — rooms off to the right for guitar and bass cabinets, painted concrete floors with the requisite rugs, amps and cabinets and organs and pianos and other assorted instrumentation lining the walls and otherwise scattered about. Old couches here and there. I took a seat on a piano bench and watched the jam unfold.
One does not necessarily think of Elder as a band given to improvisation. Particularly as time has gone on, their work has been clean, meticulous in its arrangements, and from what I heard of their impending fourth LP, that remains true, but these jams — and there were over 80 minutes of them recorded, ultimately — were being tracked with the intent of adding ambience to the record and building more of a sense of atmosphere. Interludes, maybe, or at very least complements to the structured songs. Joining the core lineup of the band were Mike Samos on a slide steel guitar setup and electric mandolin and keyboardist/guitarist Mike Risberg (a bandmate of DiSalvo‘s in the Gold & Silver side-project) on a Wurlitzer, who indeed fleshed out the effects wash bring proffered by the guitar as various jams built, established themselves, were held together by Donovan and pushed ahead by Couto‘s inimitable swing, and finally receded one by one. At times spacious and hypnotic and at times more active, this five-piece version of Elder was genuinely attempting to offer something different than anything the band has done before, and depending on which pieces actually make it onto the finished product, they just might get there.
Some meandering, some blending of progressive fuzzadelia and space rock, and some vital crash, the jams built from nothing into full-fledged explorations, each with their own personality. Arranged in a circle with a barrier setup behind Couto, they reveled in the process of creating this swirl, and though the going wasn’t always smooth — nor should it be — they held pieces together for as long as they wanted before letting them drift to a conclusion. The room was cold and bright, but the vibe warm and intimate, and standing outside some minutes later with the band and Dexter, whose designs for Elder have become an essential part of their presentation and whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times over the years despite his being based in Denmark, the same chemistry could be found in their ease of conversation, laughing and tossing off stories about rest stops on the sides of mountains in Sweden and, with ski-worthy Massachusetts Appalachians in the distance, remarking about the relative altitudes in places like the Netherlands, Denmark, and so on. This is a band who have traveled continents together, who’ve created together for a decade now, and their bond — even with Samos and Risberg, who are clearly close friends — is familial. One imagines that when DiSalvo, who’s been living in Berlin for the last year-plus, returned to hit the studio, the transition back into this mode of working was no less fluid than the jams I was fortunate enough to watch unfold in the live room.
Following the break, it was time to hear a new track. Pizzoferrato had been setting up rough mixes in the control room, so the band, Dexter and I made our way there to listen. No title yet, but DiSalvo informed that the sweeping nine-minute cut would be one of five included (plus whatever they got out of the jams), and as its quick start got underway, I could immediately hear progression not only in his vocals but in the arrangements from where Elder left off with Lore. Parts swept through over careening rhythms, winding basslines, stellar lead guitar work, sung harmonies and other flourish. It was clear they were building out arrangements, and with the layers working on top of each other as they were, I understood why prior to hitting the studio they’d played several shows with a four-piece, two-guitar lineup. One key distinction? The title-track of Lore had a part in its middle where DiSalvo‘s guitar emulated a Mellotron sound. This time the Mellotrons are real. Featured in both pieces I’d ultimately hear, they added their particular progressive theatricality to the proceedings, and helped further a lush melodicism that, once again, was complemented by considerable heft. I took notes as quickly as I could to keep up with the transitions — a direct quote from them: “It’s amazing how identifiable their sound has become” — as the Mellotron led through a break into the next movement of the song that, when the band kicked back in, made me hope Donovan would be high in the final mix. One of several guitar solos propelled the gallop to a cold finish circa 9:40, and as sudden as it had started, it was over.
Dexter, while the song played, showed me some of the progress for the cover and inside-the-LP artwork on his laptop, which at least as of now moves away from the deep blue tones of Lore and into darker browns and earthy, forest-feeling colors. Still elemental, but land, not sea. It was, of course, beautiful. When the track was finished, the band decided to do some more jamming, so it was back into the live room with DiSalvo, Donovan, Couto, Risberg and Samos. They’d discussed a few beginnings and ends for where interludes might make sense, decided they needed something in ‘G’ and something in ‘C,’ and set to it. It was a little more business-like than the first portion of the session had been with that set goal in mind, but each of the two movements conjured — one more droning and trance-inducing (I swear I lost time), the other led by Couto‘s toms, which was a departure in itself — seemed like it would give them something to work from. When the second one was finished, it kind of devolved into a heavy metal Xmas song, Donovan picking up sleigh bells and growling carol lyrics, laughing all the way and so on. He’d been taking direction from Risberg and the line of communication seemed to come apart toward the end, but again, that became part of the process of feeling the way through what the jam turned out to be. There were more slide guitar overdubs for Samos to add to other finished tracks, so his gear was moved into the control room and set up so he’d be able to see the specific places within the songs where his parts would go.
I don’t know how familiar Samos had been previously with the material prior to playing on it, but by the third time through each of the two songs I watched him play on, he’d nailed it. The first take, was a listen, the second a feeling out, the third — done. A fourth shot on the second song seemed more perfunctory than necessary, but didn’t hurt anything either. Still, they’d decided the jamming was done and the afternoon was getting on. It had been a two-hour trip for me to the studio, which meant two hours back, but before I left, I asked if I could hear another full track, just to get a better sense of the course of the record overall to go with the pieces, snippets, jams, and song I’d already heard. The band and Pizzoferrato were kind enough to oblige with the cut on which Samos had just played. DiSalvo set it up by calling it an “outlier” on the album, and I wouldn’t have the chance to ask him in what way he meant that, but I could hear their prog leanings coming to the forefront, another quick start of a winding motion met with his lead guitar. Some almost peak-era Porcupine Tree-style swirl crashed into deeper low end, leading to an open verse marked by harmonies at the ends of lines, and the song moved into a chorus that would cycle through and into a solo before taking off on an instrumental stretch that would be where the slide featured. Tempo shifted, the chorus returned, the Mellotron appeared, the crunch came back at the end, and trying to keep “outlier” in mind, I was nonetheless taken by the depths of layering at work, the sense of arrangement at play and, again, the growth that has marked each of Elder‘s records to-date and which seems to be fully intact going into this one as well.
Up next for the band was to continue with mixing on a song Pizzoferrato referred to as “Staving,” and to comb through the improvised material and see what fit where. No doubt that would be as much of a creative process in editing as was the making of those jams in the first place, but if Elder have shown anything over the course of their career, it’s a burgeoning sense of mastery in their sound. Lore may prove over the longer term to have been a moment of arrival for them, and I won’t speak to this follow-up as a whole without having heard the entire thing, but it was obvious to me sitting in the control room that their interest in stagnation is nil. Rather, Elder are evolving willfully, expanding their palette and broadening their approach in the same way that they’ve become closer as people over the years. How that will ultimately manifest in their next album remains to be seen as the holidays and New Year take hold, but one consistent factor in Elder‘s tenure has been that the potential they showed on barroom stages when they were still too young to buy beer has remained and blossomed with them, and as they’ve realized a catalog on which to look back, they’ve never lost sight that the most fundamental direction must always be forward.
My deepest thanks to the band, to Dexter and Pizzoferrato for having me to Sonelab. Elder‘s fourth album will be released in 2017. Please find more pictures from the studio after the jump, and thanks for reading.