Friday Full-Length: Elephant Tree, Elephant Tree

I guess the thing about this record is it’s still so relevant in my head that I somehow don’t think it’s ready for a revisit. Yeah, Elephant Tree have put out another album since this one — this one being their 2016 self-titled debut (review here) and the follow-up being 2020’s Habits (review here) — and I’ll admit I hadn’t put the album on in a while, but seven years after its release, I still kind of feel like I’m getting to know it.

Released through Magnetic Eye, the eight-song self-titled landed with a declarative thud, and not just in Sam Hart‘s drumming. It followed the London-based then-trio’s debut EP, 2014’s Theia (review here), with a remarkable forward step in terms of melodies, harmonies, riffs, songwriting, atmosphere, emotion, identity, production and reach. And I’m not knocking Theia at all — it was on my list of the best debut albums of 2014; at 28 minutes, it’s always been back and forth on whether it’s an EP or LP; for our purposes here, let’s hindsight it as an EP — but where that release had a thread of screamy sludge, the self-titled replaced that with lush heavy psychedelic rock, lightly progressive in a way Habits would build on, and marked a beginning for Elephant Tree in transitioning sitarist/vocalist Riley MacIntyre (whom I met in NYC in 2019 and was lovely) to the role of producer/collaborator and honing in on the dual vocals of guitarist Jack Townley and bassist Peter Holland (also Trippy Wicked, ex-Stubb) as key to the persona of the band.

The trade was aggression for melodic uplift, and with songs like “Wither” picking up after the settle-down-and-catch-your-breath-before-we-get-going intro “Spore” with such an immediate pull-in of a nod, “Echoes” with its bassy swing verse and fuzzwall hook, or closer “Surma,” all melodic reaffirmation becoming an outward drifting fade and poignant standalone guitar ending, if Elephant Tree was their first full-length, it was among the best debuts of the 2010s. There’s precious little secret to why or how it works, and that’s part of the appeal too: tonal largesse set to choice rolling grooves, thoughtfully arranged harmonies and songwriting unshakable even in its heaviest parts. Elephant Tree weren’t trying to be cagey in style or cloying as they played to genre. They made a record that was theirs and made the case for what they could bring to heavy rock. Obviously their arguments were persuasive, or I probably wouldn’t be sitting here wondering when their next album is going to happen (will probably be a bit; more on why below).

“Circles,” led by acoustic guitar with a soft, emotive delivery and a hook that follows the pattern of songs like “Echoes” and the first half of “Aphotic Blues” is the shortest piece at a little over three minutes, but its effect on the ambience of the whole LP shouldn’t be elephant tree elephant tree-700discounted, and neither its interplay with “Dawn” before or “Aphotic Blues” just after, the key/drone-backed strum going gently to silence as the listener rounds a corner and discovers the minotaur of a riff that launches “Aphotic Blues.” A that riff kind of riff, and not the only one in the song, which if it needs to be said is a highlight. The verse, particularly luxuriant and blossomed further in the second than the first — as it should be given the build unfolding — and chorus open at 2:43 to the confessional lyrics, “I need a way to escape my head/I need a way to get by/I need somebody to rescue me/I need a word or a sign,” feeling that much more honest for their plain language.

But they’re still moving slowly, patiently. Not forcing it. Not doing too much or too little. At 3:23, they break to crackling and humming amps as they gather themselves for the instrumental two and a half minutes to come, which are a cathartic celebration of hair-raising riffs and an invitation to let oneself go and be carried by the rhythm. Seven years after the fact, I still heartily recommend doing so. And seven years after the fact, I’m not sure I ever fully appreciated the contrast between “Dawn,” otherwise known as the coming of light, and “Aphotic Blues,” the title of which refers to an absence of light. Couple that with a renewed affection for the watery flourish in the jammy stretch of “Echoes” and the bass hitting early in “Dawn” and just that line in the chorus of “Circles” that goes “The sky just the same as the ocean/The space between me and my home,” and Elephant Tree‘s Elephant Tree still sounds fresh to my ears.

And I’ll say as well, I had just about entirely forgotten the penultimate “Fracture,” which is a little rawer in sound, with a distorted vocal and a massive riff at its finish that dirties up some of the nicer, cleaner, friendlier aspects of the record. I don’t know if it was written earlier than some of the other material, or later, but it comes across now as somewhat set apart for its more introverted feel on a release that’s so much about reaching out. Rather than interrupting the oh-so-vital flow, it adds dynamic to the spaciousness; changing it up without sacrificing momentum. I’ll note that “Circles,” as second to last on side A, was also a point of departure, so a bit of vinyl-minded mirroring there, if manifest differently.

Earlier this year, Elephant Tree let it be known that Townley had suffered a bad accident and been in the hospital for weeks. That led to cancelations for spring appearances and whatever plans might’ve been in the works for earlier this summer, but the band will return to the stage at Krach am Bach in Germany on Aug. 4 and they’re booked for a return appearance at Høstsabbat in Oslo this October, where I hope I’ll get to see them again. As for the aforementioned next record, expectations are high after Habits, which deserved much more of a touring cycle than it got, and I’ve got my fingers crossed for 2024, but of course I know nothing, basically ever, so there you go. I’ll gladly take it whenever it may arrive.

As always, I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

It’s 5:18AM as I finish the above. I’m on the couch as usual with the laptop, but instead of the regular room lamp I’ve got my phone flashlight set under a less-than-half-full gallon jug to make a dim water light in hopes that The Pecan can stay asleep longer. When her air conditioning is on — which it is because the Northeast is getting the heatwave that caused so much misery in the South last week — the air pressure in her room changes, and her door, like the majority of doors in this house, is broken. It doesn’t have the part that keeps the door closed in the jamb. So the change in air pressure as a result of the air conditioner blowing pulls the door open. The nub that retracts and pops out. This lets more light in from downstairs when I’m awake and writing and my sense is that pretty much the first time she rolls over and semiconsciously processes that there’s light on downstairs, she comes down. The water light experiment is to see if a dimmer light will be less noticeable through her pain in the ass door. That she was up yesterday at 5:03 and that it’s 5:23 now gives me a ‘maybe’ to work from.

She was at zoo camp this week. Yeah, I know zoos are immoral as fuck. They are. You should not capture wild, undomesticated animals and put them in cages. But I’m sorry, I don’t have the money to fly to Australia to show my kid what a kangaroo is or why she should give a crap about whether or not they go extinct, so a zoo provides a worthy function in my mind. The Turtle Back Zoo is a regular spot for us; it’s close by, a good walk, has a train and carousel in addition to the animals, touch tank with stingrays, the whole bit. She’s had a great time at camp by all accounts, and after last week getting kicked out of the last camp with one day left — which still feels like a kick in the balls; one fucking day! so close! — even though there have been a few bumps and the counselor has talked to The Patient Mrs. and I at pickup every day about what she’s doing, that she’s getting through is an improvement. But we’ve been at the house all week anxiously looking at the phone hoping it doesn’t ring.

No one tells you when you have a kid just how much of your life is going to be spent in absolute terror. That’s probably a good thing for the continuation of the species.

Next week is farm camp — as I’ve noted before, The Patient Mrs. (through whom all things are possible) lined up this whole amazing summer for her — and that’s a half-day, so less stress on the parental end and maybe a break for the kid as well. But we proceed.

I guess SonicBlast is in like a week and a half. I’m not ready. I’ve never been there before. I’m nervous. I felt the same way before Freak Valley though and lived to tell the tale, so yeah. I need to see if I have a ride from the airport to, uh, wherever the hell I’m going once I land in Portugal.

Next week is first though. My notes feel like a mess but they’re actually not and I’ve got stuff slated into November at this point (not everything through then is full, mind you), with premieres next week for Earthbong, Coltaine and The World at a Glance, hopefully a review of the new Ararat, and whatever else I can fit in. Thanks if you check any of it out. Thanks if you at all dug into the Quarterly Review that ended earlier this week. Again, every time, thanks for reading.

I hope you have a great and safe weekend. Have fun if you can, hydrate, watch your head, take deep breaths. We’re going to swim at my sister’s husband’s family’s house (like my family, they’re also just up the road in the neighborhood) and will probably blast far too much air conditioning as we play Zelda. Whatever you’re up to, hope you enjoy, and thanks one more time for reading.


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4 Responses to “Friday Full-Length: Elephant Tree, Elephant Tree

  1. Sam says:

    Thanks for the website. Love your dedication.

    Hang in there with the kid. The fact you care speaks volumes. Lots of people can’t even be bothered to do that. Shit ain’t easy. I have two young boys. They broke me down to my constituent parts and I was left to try and rebuild myself in whatever way I could. I don’t even know who I am anymore. But I still get up every morning and try, try again.

    Keep at it. You may not agree, but I feel love in your words. You really give a shit. Keep at it and I’m sure everything will be OK.

    Props too to The Patient Mrs. We’d have gone extinct a long time ago without people like them.

    Thank you.

  2. Ben says:

    As the parent of a kid with ADHD, summer can be sooo daunting for me (even more so for my own patient wife, who as teacher is at home every day during the summer). Just trying to fill the gaps with something other than screens is exhausting, and you two should be applauded, even when you feel like you’re failing. Keep on keepin on, it’s all we can do.

    That Elephant Tree record is still on constant rotation in my life. It kind of sits in a holy trinity with me, with King Buffalo’s Orion, and ATW’s Dying Surfer, as a watershed moment that restored my faith in music.

    • JJ Koczan says:

      Good call on that trinity. I was thinking of doing Orion next actually, but maybe I’ll throw Dying Surfer in there first tomorrow.

      • Nico says:

        Dying Surfer is absolute the epitome of “watershed moment”. That 2015/16 time has really proven itself to be a golden moment in time. Mondo Drag, Youngblood Supercult, Holy Grove… there was some incredible stuff going on.

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