Queen Elephantine, Scarab: Snakes and Ladders

Since making their debut on the same 2006 split that marked the first recorded appearance of Elder, Providence-by-way-of-Hong-Kong-and-Brooklyn experimental doomers Queen Elephantine have been consistently hard to pin down — and not just geographically. Their latest full-length, Scarab (on Heart and Crossbone Records/Cosmic Eye Records for CD and vinyl, respectively), finds the amorphous outfit as ever led by guitarist Indrayudh Shome working with two drummers and exploring a drone-based mysticism that seems in partial conversation with Om‘s 2012 outing, Advaitic Songs, but taken to a more exploratory degree. The 50-minute album is comprised of four extended tracks — “Veil” (8:12), “Crone” (18:16), “Snake” (10:44) and “Clear Light of the Unborn” (13:05) — and each one builds its own flow within the overarching progression of Scarab as a whole. Joining Shome on his journey are two drummers, Ian Sims and Nathanael Totushek, bassist Matt Becker, returning tanpura player Srinivas Reddy and Brett Zweiman, who played bass on Queen Elephantine‘s last outing, 2011’s Garland of Skulls, but here contributes slide guitar and other drones, and the songs were recorded in one day (I would suspect entirely or at least mostly live) by Sims with a mix by Shome himself and a mastering job from Billy Anderson. The result of all their work is a varied but ultimately satisfying listen of heavy drone, and Queen Elephantine have done increasingly well over their last couple albums in shirking expectations and definitions of what “heavy” means. That continues on Scarab as well and makes their stylistic sprawl all the more boundless and more importantly, all the more their own. Almost immediately, “Veil” commences with a meditative drone and percussion, sparse guitar and bass that in another context might be akin to Earth metering out slow lines over a subtle build both in tempo and clash. Vocals arrive after the instrumental bombast peaks in spiritually desperate wails, and a lighter swirl plays out buried by heavier guitar strum and gradual return the winding line that delivered Scarab‘s first offering to its point of highest energy. Already we hear the flow is liquid.

It remains so for the duration. At 18-plus minutes, “Crone” is an undertaking unto itself, but it unfolds with hypnotic patience and makes a consuming follow-up to “Veil,” working in a similarly-slow, temple-style atmosphere. An underlying synth-style drone — what might be referred to in the credits as “divine mosquito” and credited to Zweiman — plays out steadily beneath the minimal guitar-led progression, and even when the vocals arrive, the sense of open space is maintained. There’s room between the music overtop and that buzz, and it’s in that room that the listener is most likely to get placed, feeling one overtop and the other underneath, surrounded; especially at louder volumes. After five minutes or so, Queen Elephantine embark on a mild cacophony, and again the double percussion plays a major role. Guitar and bass get louder, and vocals return, the band moving within the sort of undulations of energy that they’re crafting to bring the track forward, then draw it back, all the while the drone underneath stays put. There is an instrumental push as they approach 10 minutes in that provides “Crone” a noisy apex at about 13:00, but they soon drop to quieter spheres as Shome establishes a bouncing sort of guitar nod that leads the way through the remaining time, punctuating pops and the bassline adding dimension as the drone finally comes forward near the end of the song before fading out again. If you’re not on board with Scarab yet, you won’t be. The record’s first half is a challenge that the second half rises to meet, but if you’re immune to the trance they’re working in and bringing their listeners into, the course is set. It’s not like they’re going pop once “Snake” hits, is what I’m saying. Rather, with a current of Reddy‘s tanpura, they resume the droning course, bringing vocals in early as they did on “Crone,” and revel further in the torch-lit contemplations. It is atmospherically gorgeous and a sure sign of Queen Elephantine‘s maturity that they’re able to maintain such a patient sense throughout Scarab, and if it turns some listeners off, it’s hardly the band’s loss. “Snake” never gets quite as rambunctious as did “Crone,” but string-esque drones give a sense of emergency all the same as the metered lurch is mounted.

Ultimately, side B of Scarab — that is, “Snake ” and “Clear Light of the Unborn” — offers little in terms of ambience that “Veil” and “Crone” didn’t already convey, but as “Clear Light of the Unborn” gets underway with sampled prayer chants, Queen Elephantine reinforce the notion that the stillness is part of the process. And I’m not trying to backdoor around saying the album is boring; it isn’t. Each of the four tracks has a progression that moves smoothly through, and as it provides some of the hardest hitting crashes of the collection, “Clear Light of the Unborn” makes a fitting end. Its stomp comes of course complemented by humming drone, and off-time starts and stops add to the complexity of the instrumental gravitas. Here as ever, Queen Elephantine are still but not at rest, honing a tension that finds payoff in a few scant cymbal crashes and sustained notes ascending to a boil with a final coming together that hints at the terrifying notion that they haven’t just been screwing around this whole time, but have actually been in control of every sound that’s been produced throughout Scarab. If that’s even partially the case, or how much of the songs is improv as opposed to pre-composed, I don’t know. An organic feel prevails throughout — it would have to or the album would fall completely flat — and there is a sense of at least directed purpose if not scripted parts. The last minutes of “Clear Light of the Unborn” play out quietly and with little drama, which also works on the level of the band easing their audience out of the album’s space and back to whatever semblance of reality they might inhabit. Shome and his band have continued over their run to develop ceaselessly and at times uncautiously, but in listening, it’s hard not to get a sense of their having arrived somewhere with Scarab. Perhaps most encouraging of all is that for all the ambience it creates and for how evocative the music proves, there’s little self-imposed grandeur either in the production or the execution of the material. I wouldn’t call it at-the-altar humble, but neither are they trying to sound big just for the sake of it. If that’s a sign of Queen Elephantine‘s continued maturing, it’s one I’m glad to hear, and as regards this material, it makes the songs that much more of a pilgrimage, which it would seem is precisely what they’re intended to be.

Queen Elephantine, Scarab (2013)

Queen Elephantine on Thee Facebooks

Heart and Crossbone Records

Cosmic Eye Records

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