Friday, February 14, 2014

Queen Elephantine - Scarab (2014)

Guilty. We're guilty of it just as much as any other party. Genre tagging, as we have ranted and raved about numerous times before, is a cancer on the music world. It's one part opinion and one part bullshit; words used to essentially group bands together by the slimmest of criteria. As a result, bands good and bad fall under the same umbrella, which is a disservice to the former, and an undue boost to the latter. It lets the genres get diluted by bands who have no place being there. When we were first introduced to drone metal some years ago, many of the bands we experimented with had a lot in common. Minimalist approach to music, with few notes per minute. Long tracks, often beginning and ending at the same point with little in between. It seemed boring, if not hard to understand. Unfortunately, those experiences sullied us to new ones, often panning albums marked with the scarlet letter of drone. But in 2014, we realized it was time to put that aside and open those doors again. Queen Elephantine, a band split between New York, Providence and Hong Kong, turned the knob. And for the foreseeable future, "Scarab" left the door wide open.

If "Veil" became the new poster child for the drone movement, it would see popularity skyrocket as a result. It brings something to the table that was sorely lacking, and that is a sense of style. Whether it is in the light tapping of drums or the echoing distortion, or the wailing cry of the vocals, something stands out to almost every set of ears without wearing thin on the listener's sense of forward progress. It takes a minimalist approach to doom that, somehow, resonates. Even as the counter resets and "Crone" starts, it feels like parts of the same whole. Yes, there is a main body to the track; but there is also a collection of smaller pieces dwelling just below the surface. In the left channel a light repeated plucking of strings. In the right channel, a similar sound, but distant and clearer. It is an eerie calm, only made moreso by the brief vocal passage. As a building voice breathes the line, "It builds up," a head to toe shiver is all you can feel. What follows is an exercise in dark psychedelia, hazy and cloudy as it may be, that may be the reason for, or ending to, an herbal remedy. Intoxicated or not, the alternating moments of chaos and calm are sure to bring about some sort of internal awakening.

Much like its namesake, "Snake" slithers back and forth. The low roar of bass and guitar form the backdrop of the high cry of a guitar. It isn't exactly black on white in contrast, but it does boast a depth of sound that seems almost impossible for a track that bares any resemblance to drone metal. But it is also on this song, more than the others, that the vocals stake a claim to being a major player in the grand scheme. Psychedelic, yes, but always akin to that of the blues in both their sway and emotional touch. Not to be lost, mind you, is the detailed pieces of melodic guitar that buzz and hum through the frame, backed by a sea of howling reverb. The last track, though not the longest, has, arguably, the longest lasting appeal. Beginning with a building vocal chant over scant noise and pops, it takes the album to a more pronounced place, even if things haven't erupted into a full on thrash. With each pluck of a guitar or bass string, another layer is added to the resonating sound, a cloud of ambient noise that is just enough to be heard, without overwhelming the lead. It is more than noise, though; that hum is layer after layer of notes played together and compacted.

It's hard to separate labels that we, as fans or critics, give to music with those the band give to themselves. If everything called drone or experiemental sounded the same, genre tagging might helpful in attracting or repelling listeners. But with Queen Elephantine, the tag of drone doesn't quite do their process justice. This is minimalist in the same way that many drone bands operate; one note, ringing for minutes at a time, no progression for sound or direction. There are melodies here, grooves and loops to be found. More importantly, you get more pounds per square inch, a crushing piece of haunting background music that could either be a release or give you nightmares. It stirs a color spectrum, like those than Windows Media Player uses; a color visualization within your mind that is only reinforced by the highs and lows of the album at large. Somewhere along the way, no one ever told these musicians that drone music was supped to be one dimensional or boring. "Scarab" is not of the above. And we can all be happy for that.


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