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Exquisite stoner rock in a tiny Finnish town

  • Elder, a band from Boston, stands out from other stoner bands
  • While dark doom metal sounds do inflect the band’s music, it is the psychedelic trippy-ness that dominates

The Boston-based Elder band.
The Boston-based Elder band.

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Acouple of months ago, when a musician friend sent me links to an album by Elder, I didn’t know what to expect. I had never heard the band before—in fact, I had never even heard of them. But then my friend, Toni, a Finnish heavy-metal bassist, has eclectic taste in music and his recommendations have always led me to surprise discoveries.

The first track by the band that I heard was Sanctuary, the opening song from Elder’s 2017 album, Reflections Of A Floating World, their fourth full-length. Sanctuary is a nearly 12-minute track that opens with a fuzz-filled, guitar-driven soundscape that could seem like it’s coming from yet another hard and heavy-metal band, a clone of hundreds of those that populate that genre. Ho-hum, I said to myself.

But wait, no! A few minutes into the track, Elder changed tack. Melodies emerged. The guitar riffs started taking you on journeys unexpected. The rhythm section—bass and drums—was robust, full-bodied and relentless. Vocalist Nick DiSalvo’s voice was unlike any usual heavy-metal singer’s—instead of growls and rasps and yelling, it is a tenor that reaches highs and, quite inexplicably, is able to rise above the loudness of the music. Soon, the sound changed again. The fast-paced lead riffs took you on hypnotic, psychedelic trips—a series of mini trips actually. But about halfway into the track, the soundscape changed yet again, the pace slowed and the melody turned gentle and more intricate. By then, I was hooked to Elder.

Elder are a band from Boston, essentially a trio—DiSalvo (guitars, keyboards and vocals); Jack Donovan (bass); and Matt Couto (drums). On gigs, there’s a fourth member who joins—Mike Risberg (guitars and keyboard). Elder are often described as a stoner rock band—as part of a genre where heavy doom metal sounds are melded with psychedelic, trippy meanderings. And that’s probably accurate. Yet Elder stand out from other stoner rock bands, many of them characterized by their loud, but slow and sludgy, sounds. Elder manage to break that cliché—while dark doom metal sounds do inflect their music, it is the psychedelic trippy-ness that dominates. And that’s what makes them appealing.

A few weeks back, I got a short text from Toni. “Hey, how about Elder on Saturday?” The band was on a European tour and they were hitting a small town not very far from where I am usually based, on the western coast of Finland. He offered a ride with a sober designated driver, and, on the day of the gig, with a car full of beer for the rest of us, we hit the road. Rytmikorjaamo is an old warehouse that was converted into a sprawling concert venue more than a decade ago. And although it is located in a small town, Seinäjoki (population: 60,000), it has become a destination for big bands, drawing audiences from various parts of Finland. For the 200-odd people who had come to watch Elder, the venue’s smaller, and more intimate, stage was opened up. The crowd was a curious mix: older, long-haired hippie-ish types mingled with younger, plaid-shirted metalheads.

A local Finnish trio, Malamujér, opened for Elder. They were impressive. Three young men from rural Finland making music that was at once shoegaze-y and psychedelic. By the time Elder took the stage, the crowd was in the mood. And the band didn’t disappoint. Live, Elder sound even better than they do on their albums. Their set list of eight long songs, including an encore, drew from their albums. Three of them were from Reflections Of A Floating WorldSanctuary, The Falling Veil and Thousand Hands. For the rest, they delved into their catalogue of other originals.

It didn’t matter. Elder’s gig was tight, superbly sonically crafted, and, importantly, very, very trippy.

The keyboard and screaming guitars interlocked impeccably to produce melodies that got into your head and stayed there; bassist Donovan, stocky, bearded and at the centre of the stage, held the crowd in thrall with his exquisite fretwork; and DiSalvo’s vocals rounded off the sound with its unconventional (for metal) tonality. Behind the band, the screen had psychedelic graphics morphing continuously, adding to the mood. The crowd—of diehard headbangers and chilled-out older fans—swayed to the music, beer cups held high, feet stomping to the beat.

Elder aren’t a very old band. They released their first record in 2006 as a split album with another psychedelic rock band from Philadelphia, Queen Elephant. By 2008, they had their first self-titled full-length. And then three more. All along they have toured relentlessly, building up a loyal base of fans who are drawn by the uniqueness of their sound. Are they a doom metal band? Or are they psychedelic rockers? The typical Elder song will keep you guessing till the end. And it doesn’t matter. It’s their genre defiance that makes them as good as they are.

As we gathered at the bar for a post-gig tipple and checked out the band’s merchandise—vinyls, and great graphic T-shirts—we spotted the fierce bassist, Donovan, chatting with some Finnish girls affably, like a gentle bear. That’s the other thing about Elder. On stage and off, they are an unassuming bunch, eschewing the high jinks you would normally associate with heavy rockers.

As we left the venue, Toni and I both predicted that after the news of the gig spread across Finland’s well-networked rock fans, and if Elder chose to drop by at Seinäjoki again, the management would, in all probability, open up the larger main stage and be prepared for a crowd of at least a thousand. For Finland (population: 5.5 million), that’s a big gig.


Five tracks by Elder to bookend your week

1. ‘Sanctuary’ from ‘Reflections Of A Floating World’

2. ‘Compendium’ from ‘Lore’

3. ‘Gemini’ from ‘Dead Roots Stirring’

4. ‘The Falling Veil’ from ‘Reflections Of A Floating World’

5. ‘Spires Burn’ from ‘Live At Roadburn 2013’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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