How many times can one band reinvent the wheel? That’s the question lingering in the back of my mind every time I press play on a new Elder album, along with, How are they gonna top the last one?
Emerging from Southern Massachusetts in the late 2000s, Elder excelled at epic-scope, stonery doom metal, often jammy and expansive, but always crushingly heavy. Their first two albums explored well-worn territory, but did so expertly, every song overflowing with crunchy, tasty riffs. But save for the absolute masters and innovators of that style (what Elder frontman Nicholas DiSalvo calls “that repetitious, big riff after big riff thing”) it’s got a fairly low ceiling— there’s not a lot of places you can take it that it hasn’t already been. You can only ride the riff train so far. That’s why, despite adoring 2011’s Dead Roots Stirring and the following year’s Release EP, I couldn’t help but feel like Elder had an expiration date.
They’ve now proven me wrong three times. With each ensuing album, Elder expand their sound, making it nearly impossible to crown any record but their latest as their best. By their own admission (on Bandcamp), Elder have out-progged themselves every time they drop something new. 2015’s Lore promised “new meanderings through uncharted kosmische territory.” 2017’s Reflections of a Floating World heralded “long, undulating, and dense tracks.” Last year’s uncharacteristically mellow (and wordless) Gold & Silver Sessions EP had the band “following their imaginations in an entirely new direction.”
Omens — their fifth full-length coming out on Friday — ups the ante, staring down prog’s ultimate monolith: the concept album. On Elder’s current trajectory, this was inevitable. The band’s explored winding time signatures, added synths, and gone through a few lineup changes— there’s only one hurdle left in the prog gauntlet. Their latest was, per Bandcamp, “composed as a concept album spanning the lifespan of a civilization,” with each of its five lengthy tracks imagining a different stage, from rise to decay. As always, Elder rise to the challenge, delivering their most dynamic, anthemic material yet.
Now a four-piece (plus a guest keyboardist on Omens), Elder retain two-thirds of their original lineup in bassist Jack Donovan and guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Nicholas DiSalvo. To get the inside scoop on the band’s incredible evolution and the many challenges of crafting a thematically connected album, The Pit hopped on Skype with DiSalvo from his current home in Germany.
THE PIT: When you guys first started off, you were more of a stoner/doom thing, as opposed to what you are now. I know that’s a long time and a lot of albums, but how would you summarize the band’s growth over the course of your career?
NICHOLAS DISALVO: In the beginning, we didn’t have a lot of ambition with the band, other than to write heavy music that was chock-full of riffs. We were really into stoner rock and doom, and so all we were really trying to do was just emulate the bands that we listened to. Very quickly, we got more ambitious, or just really bored of that repetitious, big riff after big riff thing. It does get old very quickly, especially if you’re playing shows and you’ve gotta play the same fucking riffs night after night after night. It was just growing up, too. We started the band when we were… 17, I guess? And we came across a whole lot of different music in the meantime, and grew as people and went from being teenagers to adults. We just discovered a lot of different stuff that seeped into our brains and influenced us and made us want to naturally move away from that [original sound]. I never give a good answer to this because I feel like it would be fucking weird if someone really wanted to play stoner rock for, like, 12 years in a row. I know bands do that, but for me— you know, playing some of the stuff from, like, our second record, even that can be torture.
What were some of those major “a-ha” moments, either in musical discovery or otherwise, that evolved your sound?
We used to be really obsessed with being a heavy band. No matter what we were doing, it had to be heavy. The first time that I discovered Colour Haze, this German band, that made me realize, “Oh wow, they’re doing all these songs that are mostly in major keys. Everything sounds very happy, but it’s still super heavy.” It’s a very dumb realization to have, but it made me realize that there’s other ways to be a heavy band than just having very loud, distorted guitars. You can do things that sound very happy and playful, even, and it can still be heavy. That was one of the major insights that, at least while we were still heavily listening to stoner rock, informed the first shift.
Then just getting into more progressive kinds of music, digging into prog rock heavily around the time we made Lore— delving into messing with other kinds of instruments, working with keyboards, just kind of pushing ourselves to experiment more and more. It wasn’t always going to be our M.O. that every album’s different. We didn’t think about it but it happened. Then all of a sudden it was like, “Oh yeah, I guess this is what we’re doing now, so let’s be that band. Fuck yeah, let’s make sure that we push ourselves with every record to do something different.”
Especially when you’re talking about Lore and getting into prog, what were some of the biggest challenges with changing your style of playing, going from crushingly heavy to more adventurous stuff?
It was finding where those two genres meet— I think that’s why we’ve had these incremental shifts where, like, Lore’s still got very heavy elements of stoner and doom, just with progressive flourishes, and the guitar work is a little bit more adventurous. A big challenge was trying to do all these multi-tracked guitar parts with one guitar. We were a three-piece band and we were always recording these records with fucking no budget whatsoever because we didn’t have money. That time we were like, “We’re gonna break the bank, we’re gonna spend, you know, five days recording a record.” We started layering up the guitars and doing all this stuff that we wanted, just experimenting more and more, but then it was very clear like— oh shit, you can do so much on an album but there’s only so much you can do in-person. That made us realize that we had to hone our skills, we have to be really good musicians if we want to do this stuff convincingly. And eventually, of course, that led us to get a fourth member because it became clearly too much for six hands to handle.
Has that process gotten progressively harder with each album, or was Lore, that first real step away from your original sound, still the biggest challenge?
There have always been hurdles. I think we learned pretty quickly that we needed to find a middle ground, you know, not getting too ambitious in the studio if it’s not something we can do live. We thought adding a fourth member would simplify things, but we realized it’s actually even harder to have two guitars on stage, because now you’ve got this whole balancing act between volume and frequency range, you’re just all in each other’s hair. It’s always a learning process with us in this band. I don’t consider us professional musicians. We might technically do this as a job, it might be our profession on paper, but I feel like there’s always a lot to learn, especially if you’re always trying to get better as a band.
What lessons did you feel like you took away, or what carries over into this album, from The Gold & Silver Sessions?
Mostly just that it’s okay to dial things back a little bit sometimes. It’s okay to just float and jam— that can be really nice. I think with Reflections of a Floating World, we got really wrapped up in wanting to make very dense songs, like, “more is always more,” but that’s not always the case. On that record, the moments of quiet and the moments where things are floating, they’re brief and too few and far between. So it was cool to do The Gold & Silver Sessions, to just jam for a couple days and come out with some material that made me think, “If we could integrate some more sparse and improvised elements into the new record, that’d be great.” I think it increases the overall dynamic range of [Omens].
Was jamming always a big part of your compositional process?
No, that’s the thing: we never jammed. I’ve lived in Germany for seven years of the band’s 13-year existence, like pretty much half of the time. We just got used to doing things very much, like, I’m gonna write the music and I’m gonna send it to the guys, and when we meet up and work, it’s work time. We very rarely jam, which sucks because back in the day we did have a house together in Boston and we had a space down the street and we’d go there a couple times a week and just get drunk and smoke weed, and we’d jam and we’d never write anything. It was fun but it was completely counterproductive. That was the association I always had with it, like, “Nah, nah, we can’t do that.” But that’s not true. We’ve changed a lot since then and obviously know each other as musicians better. It’s nice to come full circle and do things a little more loosely again.
Did you change much about your vocal approach on this album? The first time I heard “Embers,” I was like, “Whoa, he’s doing something a little bit different here.”
Totally. I think a lot of people had that reaction without the insider knowledge that up until this record, every Elder song with vocals had been written in one of three keys. My vocals have never really had to push to different ranges. But we wrote all of the songs, except for one, in a different key on this record. Hitting those higher registers, it’s just something we’ve never done before. I also did spend a lot of time trying to make the vocals an instrument on the record a little bit more than they have in the past. We always really buried them in the mix, put ‘em underneath everything else and added reverb on top of them. It was just another thing we wanted to do as a conscious production choice to make the record stand out.
As far as the concept side of Omens, do you see any of your previous albums having unified themes or is this really, truly a first for Elder?
I mean they do have themes, but it’s always very loose, very vague. Oftentimes, I’m writing lyrics and it’s very clear to me in the moment what I’m writing about, but after a couple years pass, I’m like, “What the hell was that song about again?” This is definitely the album that’s got the clearest narrative, but it’s still very loose because, actually, the order of the songs on the record changed, and as such, some of the lyrics got shifted around and it ended up being a bit more murky than I originally intended. I wanted to make this an actual concept album in the truest sense of the word, where all of the songs went into each other. We had interludes planned, we had all this stuff planned and we just fuckin’ ran out of time and money. It’s funny, this one was gonna be the real prog rock record, and it ended up kind of not being that, which is fine.
Do you see any of the themes of this album reflected in your previous work? On “Blind” from Reflections of a Floating World, you’re talking about “the monuments of man falling into decay,” which is a line that could easily fit on Omens.
Totally. I think with the past couple of records, I always end up coming back to the same themes at the end of the day. The big topic for Omens is, of course, us as a society killing ourselves collectively, committing mass suicide, if you will. I’m always writing about something environmentally focused— that’s something that’s troubled me since I was a kid and it continues to be even more troubling year after year, so I find it hard not to. Now with COVID we’re a little more distracted, but every day reading the news about fucking millions of species going extinct and the summers, even in Europe, have been so fucking brutally hot, people are dying of heat exhaustion. Maybe it’s just me being paranoid, but it feels like we’re living in some sort of ramp-up to extinction.
Hard not to feel that way.
Yeah, that’s always on my mind so it’s hard to write about, like, the fantastic Wizard of Oz when you’re thinking about the world burning in your lifetime. There’s more important shit out there that’s always sneaking in.
Did you find it hard to take all those very real-life concerns and spin it into more of a fictionalized narrative?
No. I mean, it sounds less preachy. I guess that’s the nice thing. We’re not a political band, and I’m not saying that in the same way that like black metal bands say, “We’re not political,” even though they’re throwing up the fucking Sieg Heil. We just don’t push the politics openly, mostly because no one fucking cares what a rock band has to say, you’re just gonna piss people off and it’s not really going to help the dialogue. It’s the most thinly veiled metaphor of all-time, that’s it’s about a fictional society, because of course it’s really about our world. But it’s also nice to not have that at the forefront of your mind every time you’re listening to a record, like, “Oh this is about a super heavy thing.” It’s heavy times and sometimes you just wanna put on a record and zone out.
What stage are we currently at right now, based on the album’s narrative of decline?
I’m not a fuckin’ scientist or anything, but for me, this is still the midpoint. At the midpoint of the album, the track “Halcyon” almost has this sense of joy or hope, because these are the last good days, so enjoy the beautiful sunset while it’s going down. I feel like that’s where we’re at. We’re past a tipping point, where we’re going to be confronted with more and more horrible shit for the rest of our lives, but we’re still going on, you know, what can you do? You have to enjoy life, you have to make music and go to concerts and try and make the best out of everything and contribute as little as possible to the problems.
Omens comes out this Friday, but is available for preorder now.
Words by Patrick Lyons