We tend to think of Conan The Barbarian as a big, dumb fucker with a sword. But Conan was something else, too. Robert E. Howard, the great pulp writer, was probably the closest thing to a peer that H.R. Lovecraft ever had. Howard dreamed up Conan when he was 28, two years before he committed suicide. As conceived by Howard, Conan was a kind of mystical warrior-king, a brutal death-dealer wandering the world in some mysterious prehistorical age, fighting gods and only caring for his own survival. He was a mythic figure invented out of whole cloth, and those Howard stories feel connected to ancient and mysterious forces. The Massachusetts band Elder started out as a Conan-themed band, and they didn’t mean it in a jokey way; there are two different songs on Elder’s self-titled 2006 debut called “Riddle Of Steel.” In the past decade, Elder have grown and expanded their sound, to the point where they’re one of the most restless and inventive forces at work in their entire wing of the metal underground. But you can still hear, in their music, that elemental concept that first inspired them, the dream of a lost era where might and bloodthirst ruled.
Elder’s wing of the metal underground is stoner/doom, the side that draws its inspiration from slow and fuzzy and deliberate ’70s occult bongwater rock. Or, in any case, that’s where Elder started out; with each successive release, they’ve gone further and further into their own sound, to the point where they really only qualify as metal by association these days. Over their last few records, Elder have gone off more in the direction of prog and heavy psychedelia. But they’re not like Opeth, the first band that most of us think of when we think of that endlessly permeable metal/prog dividing line. Opeth make theatrical grand-gesture music, moving from fragile woodland folk to roaring Scandinavian death shit. Elder don’t make big gestures like that. In fact, it’s easy to imagine that they don’t even think about whether people will consume their music. Instead, they sound like three musicians completely in tune with one another, facing each other rather than whoever might be listening, willing each other toward greatness. Elder’s songs aren’t segmented the way Opeth’s are; we don’t hear a folk bit going into a big riff. Instead, they fire off in every direction at once, and the songs don’t end until they end.
They don’t end for a while. Reflections Of A Floating World, Elder’s new album, has six songs spread over about an hour, which is entirely par for the course with this band. Listening to Reflections, though, you might not even notice that the songs are long. They don’t communicate length. The album isn’t about where one song starts and another ends. They all bleed together into one vast symphony of heavy grandeur. If you really sit down and analyze their songs, you can probably discern all these little movements and sections. Elder, like every stoner band in existence, builds on what Black Sabbath once did. But for all we know, Elder might chart their songs out on graph paper, which we can be pretty certain Tony Iommi never did. Still, for all the complexity in Elder’s music, you don’t hear it as complex. Complexity isn’t the point. The members of the band have chops — guitarist and frontman Nicholas DiSalvo in particular — but they’re putting those chops in service of the raging lost-world atmosphere that they’re conjuring. The songs, I think, are that long because it takes time to spiral down into that world, to lose your sense of self and give in completely, to immerse yourself into what they’re doing.
There are five musicians on Reflections Of A Floating World, so Elder aren’t technically a power trio anymore. And on the new album, the sound is fuller and richer and more textured than it was on their last album, 2015’s mighty Lore. There are more instruments in there: Fender Rhodes, Mellotron, pedal steel. If the focus is anywhere, it’s on DiSalvo’s guitar, which is always doing blazingly triumphant hero-ball stuff. That guitar soars and swoops and canters and dives. It’s always doing something impressive, and whenever the ridiculously locked-in rhythm section branches off into some complicated new time signature, DiSalvo is right there with them, running circles around them. But more than that, there is no focus. The way the album is recorded, everything fades into a single thundering blur. It’s like violent ambient music, music for the chillout room where candles flicker and blood seeps into the ground.
In a statement about the new album, DiSalvo says, “The term ‘the floating world’ comes from a particular period in Japanese society which is associated with a flourishing of the arts, but also a self-destructively decadent lifestyle.” DiSalvo’s idea is that we’re currently living in our own version of the floating world — the self-created fantasy zone that’s bound to end badly any minute now — and these majestic monsters that he’s conjured are his commentaries on it. It makes sense. You aren’t going to learn anything new about the way the world works today by listening to this album, but it does give off the sense of something flowering and dying at the same time. And if you hear an album like this on headphones, when you’re walking alone at night and living inside your own head, you might start to feel something like Conan.
Reflections On A Floating World is out 6/2 on Armageddon Label.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Bleachers’ neurosis-pop statement Gone Now.
• Alt-J’s stiffly funky sad-rock odyssey Relaxer.
• Roger Waters’ lefty orchestral rocker Is This The Life We Really Want?.
• Amber Coffman’s warm, friendly solo debut City Of No Reply.
• Mutoid Man’s punk-metal rager War Moans.
• Dan Auerbach’s sunny choogler Waiting On A Song.
• Chastity Belt’s scrappily lovely I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone.
• TOPS’ evocatively sparkly Sugar At The Gate.
• Two Inch Astronaut’s erratic emo basher Can You Please Not Help.
• Pixx’s inward-looking pop album The Age Of Anxiety.
• London Grammar’s torch-song collection Truth Is A Beautiful Thing.
• Omar Souleyman’s homeland dedication To Syria, With Love.
• Mark McGuire’s intricate ambient LP Ideas Of Beginnings.
• Beach Fossils’ long, pleasant sigh Somersault.
• Benjamin Booker’s righteous soul-rocker Witness.
• Saint Etienne’s cosmopolitan pop LP Home Counties.
• Celebration’s exuberant art-rocker Wounded Healer.
• Institute’s fired-up punker Subordination.
• Marika Hackman’s pointedly pretty I’m Not Your Man.
• Peaking Lights’ blissy zone-out The Fifth State Of Consciousness.
• Foxing side project Smidley’s self-titled debut.
• Dua Lipa’s self-titled dance-pop debut.
• Pat Keen’s creaky, elusive solo debut Albatross.
• RG Lowe’s self-titled soul-popper Slow Time.
• Hot Flash Heat Wave’s good-natured fuzz-popper Soaked.
• Jesu and Sun Kil Moon’s collaborative bum-out 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth.
• Halsey’s pop triangulation Hopeless Fountain Kingdom.
• Mavis Staples’ guest-heavy live album I’ll Take You There – An All-Star Concert Celebration.
• The Wonder Woman soundtrack.
• Coldplay’s Kaleidoscope EP.
• The Kills’ Echo Home – Non-Electric EP.
• Amber Arcades’ Cannonball EP.
• Art School Jocks’ self-titled EP.
• Carmen Villain’s Planetarium EP.