Dryw Keltz 9:15 a.m., March 25
Pachyderm prog rock courtesy of Elephants of Scotland
Rush-loving quartet drops impressive debut full-length
So you think you’d like Rush more, if only that singer didn’t keep whipping out his “chipmunk in a blender” shriek. And you’d probably listen to more Marillion and Yes, if only the album covers didn’t all look like Chevy van murals and their songs didn’t run longer than the average hobbit movie.
Then Elephants of Scotland may just be the band for you.
The prog rock quartet (three of whom played together in Hot Neon Magic) openly wears their admiration for bands like Rush in most all aspects of their sound, which harkens back to the adventurous AOR radio dayz of the late ‘70s, before video killed the radio star and everyone swapped their Freakies and bongs for Red Bull and thongs.
“Songwriting is the key to progressive rock, or any genre of rock, making a real impact” says singer/keyboardist Adam Rabin. “No long mindless jams or complicated riffs just for the sake of being complicated. At the core of every track is a song that we’ve built up and arranged with intention.”
The title track (and first single) from their debut full-length Home Away from Home bursts from the gate with Rabin’s sweeping anthemic keyboard run, immediately evocative of vintage Yes-man Rick Wakeman, supplanted by a biting staccato hard rock backdrop that pumps its way through the track.
Sung by bassist Dan MacDonald (the sole member NOT from Hot Neon Magic), the middle-eight chorus’s robot-refrain is backed only by a bouncing beat, hovering playfully somewhere between psych and disco before being joined by some ringing call-and-response interplay with John Whyte’s soaring guitar.
The literary aspirations of the lyrics (in this case by Rabin) are clearly of the Neil Peart/Roger Waters/Pete Townshend school of “This Stuff Matters,” seemingly told from the POV of someone (or someTHING) newly arrived on Earth. Lines like “My kind know not of this way/But I will learn if I choose to stay” manage to achieve gravitas and carry weight, without slipping into the over-reaching self-parody of lyricists like Fish (Marillion) and Jon Anderson during Yes’ more bloated epochs.
Playing a Geddy Lee Fender Jazz bass, MacDonald here is only occasionally nudged upfront in the mix, sounding perhaps more Greg Lake “sing-along” than Geddy Lee “I dare ya,” but still impressive in his speedy trips up, down, and across the fretpoard.
Most all the songs have a sci-fi vibe, as telegraphed by the wooden-ships-in-space cover artwork, as well as the hardware-heavy video for the title track (screenshots above and below). “[The] song topics,” according to the band, “ranging from environmentalism to alien invasions to time travel, are an homage to the genre, while keeping it light and not overly serious.”
“Geograph” is wrapped around a mathematical electro-pulse, sung by Rabin (with tenor-like harmonies by MacDonald) and sporting lyrics by drummer Ornan McLean (who has three drum kits of various makes and models and, yes, he will play “YYZ” if you request it). The tune unfolds a musical travelogue “on the edge of sea and sand,” which seems to warn that ecological abuse can only bring us “On the edge of a sinking land/ On the mean high water line/On our heads, knee deep in sand.” The result: a world in ecological ruin, “no point asking for a little more time.”
Despite the band’s disavowal of “complicated riffs,” Whyte here shows a Belew/Fripp-like allegiance to adventurous runs around the scales, played with unpredictable inflection and razor sharp intensity.
“Full Power” (lyrics co-written with Greg Skillman, a former bandmate of Rabin’s) is sung by Rabin, who plays a Roland Juno-G synthesizer with a Roland Lucina AX09 keytar so he can “strut around the stage like the cool kids, or look all bad ass with an imposing stack of keyboards.”
No, he will not play the riff from “The Final Countdown,” so don’t ask.
Comprising the closest thing on the album to a gen-you-wine freakout Phish jam, bassist MacDonald says “When we play this song live, we leave room for improv during Adam's keyboard solo.”
A lengthy track called “Starboard” features vocals by guitarist John Whyte, who says he was once “viciously saddled with having to perform ‘Safety Dance’ with Hot Neon Magic.”
Opening with and driven by an all-synth framework, keyboardist Rabin explains “I’m using a modified version of the sound that runs throughout the song -- the high up-and-down scale squirrely patch -- as the lead, so there’s more of a connection with the rest of the song.”
“The Seed,” with lyrics by Rabin and vocals by Whyte, kicks off slowly with an ethereal Hearts of Space pool of synth, gradually building up layers of sound before unleashing a Big Country-ish guitar shriek that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from atop one of the Walls at Pink Floyd’s place.
The longest track on the album, the initially jazzy “Errol McSquisitor” (lyrics and vocals by Rabin), seems to tell the tale of a jaded and time-worn Lazarus: “For him, time existed for spite not by law/a thorn in his side a thorn in his paw.”
All four players get to strut some of their best rock-opera stuff here, as the increasingly orchestral epic winds its way through a sonic landscape that would prove too perilous for all but the most aspiring of would-be prog-rock virtuosos, concluded with the fever dream flourish of a synth-drenched spaceship landing.
A video for the title track (featuring footage from actual recording sessions, with no lip-syncing) can be viewed below and at http://www.elephantsofscotland.com