Live Review: Elephant Tree, Morag Tong and Wychhound in London, UK, 05.16.18

Elephant Tree (Photo by JJ Koczan)

The kind of evening to vibrate the plugs in your ears. I’m loath to do this, but there’s a lot of context to this one that needs quick covering, so here are a few bullet points so we’re all on the same page:

  • I’m in London with my wife who is a college professor leading a study abroad trip for students. The baby and I got to tag along. Good deal.
  • While in Canterbury, the house where we were staying was burgled overnight. Among the stolen: My laptop, my camera, my glorious cosmic backpack. Sucked. Years of writing and music, gone. No backups (I know, I know…). Patient Mrs., Pecan and self fine though, so could’ve been worse.
  • One of my wife’s students very generously let me borrow her camera and take it to¬†The Black Heart in Camden Town to shoot¬†Morag Tong‘s release show with Elephant Tree and Wychhound on the bill.
  • I took my first Uber to get there. You don’t actually need to know that, but it was an interesting experience nonetheless.

I met guitarist/vocalist Jack Townley and drummer Sam Hart from Elephant Tree outside The Black Heart before I even got through the door and was warmly greeted. All the more appreciated after a long day. A week after Desertfest London, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of crowd — people could be fired up just as easily as burnt out — but it was for sure the former inside; already packed and the show, which would happen upstairs in the venue itself as opposed to the downstairs bar, hadn’t even started.

It had been half a decade since the last time I was fortunate enough to be in The Black Heart. The upstairs bar had moved from the back to the side of the venue, but beyond that, not much had changed. Downstairs was much the same as I remembered, with the big bar in the center and tables and enclaves off to the sides, a place one could both get rowdy or have a quiet conversation. Outside, people smoked like fiends. Inside, I found Elephant Tree bassist/vocalist Peter Holland, also formerly of Stubb and Trippy Wicked, old friend Chris West of an ever-increasing number of bands, among them the newly formed Glanville, whose EPK was on my stolen laptop, and met a woman Jack introduced as Sister Rainbow, who had the hair to match and for whom this would mark her 36th Elephant Tree show. Being my first, I told her she had me beat by a wide margin.

Soon enough after, things got started upstairs with Wychhound on first. The Londoners have been around a few years, and have a new EP out called Earth Orbiter following up their 2015 self-titled, which they tracked as a five-piece with vocals. Instrumental now, they made good use of the dynamic between Roberto Pini and Miles McDonald on guitar in setting the foundation for their sound, which was someplace between Kyuss-style desert worship and the heavier explorations of Pelican with shades of Russian Circles-esque post-heavy in some of its more daring moments. Bassist Neil Neighbour and drummer Sid Naghdi provided a foundation of weighted groove and allowed the guitars space to wander when they were so inclined, and some of the most effective moments came in combining forward drive with that emergent sense of space.

Even in this age of immediate access, sometimes it’s nice to go in blind — plus I, admittedly, had a pretty busy day — so I hadn’t gotten to check Wychhound out before, but their atmospherics on a piece like “Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL-9)” were readily apparent and still left room for rawer, head-down riffing in the material surrounding. It was enough to make me visit their Bandcamp and snag a download, which I guess was the idea in the first place. Some growing to do, perhaps, as they continue to come into their own sound, but they were a right on way to start the night and full enough in tone that, yes, I had to keep adjusting my right earplug because the low end was making it vibrate.

Speaking of tone, fucking Elephant Tree. Their self-titled debut (review here) on Magnetic Eye was easily one of the best records of 2016, and especially after missing them last year at Psycho Las Vegas, as soon as I found out they were playing while I’d be in town, I knew I had to see them. The three-piece did not disappoint, and that wasn’t a surprise. That is, I knew they’d be good. I’d seen videos and was of course familiar with the album and all that. I knew they’d be good. What I didn’t expect was that they’d be so much fun.

Peter Holland is at very least two things, and I say them both with utter affection and zero sarcasm. He is among the most charming drunks I’ve ever encountered, and he is insanely talented. At this point I’ve seen him play in three different bands and he’s never failed to make a mark in each of them in terms of sound. His voice is immediately recognizable, his smile infectious and his style of play was as perfect a match for Townley‘s guitar on stage as it had been on the record. Also, he broke a string before they went on. They still started more or less on time, laughing and making fun of each other in the process. Then, in the first song, Hart‘s drum stool busted. Hardly missed a beat, kept playing, and fixed it before they started the next cut. Later on, one of Townley‘s pedals got stuck on and he couldn’t turn it off, making a kind of wash of low end psychedelic waves out of a verse riff in the process. No fucking complaints there.

The point is there was no stopping Elephant Tree from rolling out their massive nod. And when I say massive, I don’t just mean it sounded big, but it sounded like it had a physical presence. Tone you could chew like gum. Between the laid back groove and the laid back vibe and the lady in the crowd making seal noises — no, it wasn’t Sister Rainbow; she was down the front rocking out as only someone on their 36th show with a band could hope to do — it was impossible not to have a good time, so I put my borrowed camera down and did exactly that for a little bit. Just let it go and enjoyed myself, and whether it was the evening’s highlight “Aphotic Blues” or the album closer “Surma” or “Dawn” — which was precisely as built for a sing-along as it seems, with Townley and Holland sharing vocals — I had no regrets. Townley brought a frontman presence to the guitar/vocal spot and though there were times when the bass threatened to swallow everything in its path, his solos cut through and gave the whole thing an entirely new sense of space. What a blast.

By way of plainly stating the obvious, they were my highlight, but Morag Tong were still to go, playing cuts from their Last Knell of Om debut full-length, which is officially out tomorrow, May 18. I’d been lucky enough to hear the album prior to seeing them — it, too, was on the desktop of my stolen laptop, and I believe slated for the next Quarterly Review, though of course I can’t be sure of that because my notes… well, you get the idea — and knew a bit of what was coming. They started out with guitarists Alex Clarke and Lewis Crane both on e-bow guitar (dueling e-bows!) and would go on to play the complete album, swapping the order to finish with “To Soil” and letting drummer Adam Asquith initially bide his time before unleashing his growling vocal between “Transmission” and “New Growth.” Equal parts psychedelic and doom, they were clearly proud of the work they’d done — and rightly so — and hypnotic in their presentation enough even on stage to give a sense of the underlying element of drone on the record.

Back into the (new) notes they go for the next Quarterly Review. Swapping out the saturated red light for a cooler-toned blue, they were a fitting end to a day that had started as a huge bummer some 17 hours earlier and had a massive turnaround in spirit and mood — more on that later. As they lurched out their meditative immersion, I made my way back downstairs to say a few quick goodnights and Uber myself back to Maida Vale, having had a night so satisfying that I almost forgot about the events of the morning prior. A night of volume and heart in kind, and the kind of night that I was so glad to be a part of that I’m still wearing The Black Heart‘s paper wristband on my right arm. And I hate those damn things.

Thanks for reading.

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