Elder have shown a lot of progression over the course of their discography. They began as almost a Sleep rip-off band, making stoner doom metal with the same vocal style and lyrical content, along with the same type of sound: slow and hypnotic heavy riffs, with fuzzy guitar tones. But with Omens, their fifth album, they have completed their transformation into something more interesting than that. Their second album, Dead Roots Stirring, showed the band becoming more melodic, and starting to add elements of progressive metal and psychedelic rock to their music. This was particularly evident in the song “III”. They began leaning more and more into the style shown on “III” with subsequent releases. And in their 2017 album, Reflections of a Floating World, most traces of doom metal had given way to progressive, jam-based rock. With that album they also expanded from a three-piece to a five-piece, adding additional guitars (including a pedal steel), keyboards, and Mellotron to their repertoire. They went even deeper with the experimental, mostly-improvised EP from last year, The Gold & Silver Sessions. This 100% instrumental release wasn’t really heavy at all, and ventured more into space rock territory. And now on Omens, Elder have removed almost all of the heavier elements that used to be their backbone.
Despite only having five tracks, the album stretches to over 55 minutes long. This isn’t anything unusual for Elder, all of their previous albums are a similar length and have 5-6 tracks. In their older work, specifically their self-titled debut, they used the song length to create repetitive, hypnotic grooves that allow each crunching riff to fully soak in before they moved on to the next. This was pretty typical for the stoner doom metal genre, and was surely inspired by Sleep’s magnum opus, the hour-long song Dopesmoker. However, Omens uses the extended song long length to create psychedelic atmospheres, often incorporating the Mellotron or synthesizer. Each song has a sense of progression through multiple distinct movements, similar to many classic prog bands, and usually has an extended intro. The band’s genius shows itself in the way that the listener barely ever notices the song transitioning from one section into the next.
With a band like Elder, the focus is always going to be on the guitars. Even Omens, with its prominent electronic elements, keeps the riffs front and center. Frontman Nick DiSalvo’s vocals have never been the band’s strongest aspect, but there was never very much of them, and their older work used the limited vocals to accent the heavy riffs perfectly. But there was a distinct shift in vocal style on Omens. DiSalvo has altered his voice to match the music, making it more melodic and less of a metal growl, and they’re slightly more prominent. His older style was more gruff, and was a nice pairing with the fuzzy guitar tones and hypnotic grooves. Unfortunately, DiSalvo’s higher-pitched voice on Omens just doesn’t sound as good. Elder is still primarily all about the guitars, but the vocals’ higher place in the mix distracts the listener from the riffs a bit too much.
It’s hard to pick out favorite songs for an Elder album. Each one is very long and usually goes through multiple phases that blend together in a dream-like way. It became even tougher with Omens because the music is more subdued and less dynamic than their older material. But one stand-out moment was the last half of “Omens”, starting around the 8-minute mark. The band increases the tempo from the first part of the song, and they find a nice groove that feels more akin to their earlier style, but still with the extra-proggy time signatures. It’s also an instrumental section, which helps the riffs stand out more. And the second half of “In Procession” shows off the best of this new style of Elder. There are prominent keys, which sound a lot like Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The vibe of this part of the song is very mellow, with the synthesizers creating a very dreamy atmosphere before the heavy guitars kick back in for the finale.
There has been a bit of controversy over the direction Elder has gone with their music. Some purists think they should still be making metal, like their forefather’s Sleep. But I’ve been a huge fan of their growth, and think that for the most part, each of their albums has been better than the last. So naturally, Omens was probably my most anticipated release of the year. But unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed by it. Reflections of a Floating World was an incredible piece of art that found the perfect balance between heavy doom metal and the progressive, psychedelic aspects that the band was exploring. But when Omens took away the heavy edge, the progressive riffs and psychedelic atmospheres fell a little bit flat. Don’t get me wrong, the music is still great. But it pales in comparison to the mind-blowing compositions of Dead Roots Stirring and Reflections of a Floating World. I used to describe the band as “like Pink Floyd, but metal”. But now it would be more accurate to say “Pink Floyd, but not quite as good”.