I love it when music fascinates me.
It's a rare, almost extinct occurrence nowadays, having had my ears sanded down and numbed by years of exposure to the ever-expanding, if not broadening, output of musicians past and present. Mostly you end up attempting to categorise bands, simply for the ease with which you can seize upon already known quantities and sum up their virtues, or lack thereof. It's a pretty demoralising, cynical way to look at it.
This is why it's all the more special when you find something that gives you that beautiful apprehension, the tingle in your spine as you approach the unknown. Something that can’t be quantified as good or bad, but simply….fascinating.
dead ends and erroneous conclusions
It's best to approach Elfin Saddle with absolutely no expectations, which is just as well, as they are certainly a unique proposition. The facts that surround them offer few clues as to their music, except to lead you to dead ends and erroneous conclusions.
Let's start with the stats: Elfin Saddle are the Canadian/Japanese duo of Jordan McKenzie and Emi Honda. They take their name from a mushroom. They describe their music as an imagination of a post-apocalyptic, de-mechanised future- in the words of Constellation's blurb for Devastates, they have 'a profound engagement with issues of environmental sustainability and the emotional impact of economic/political ideologies that continually foreclose on the possibility of genuine, progressive renewal and redirection'.
In other words, the predominant themes of their work revolve around the friction between nature and mechanisation. They also have a parallel career in installation and video art.
Hippies. I suspected as much myself.
I know what you're thinking. Hippies. I suspected as much myself. And, if you're using it as a fairly broad, rather lazy term, I suppose they are. This counter-cultural pan-globality of theirs, however, is a sizeable chunk of what makes them so enthralling.
They seem to exist parallel to all musical convention. Their oeuvre is an anomalous strain of mystical, ambient world-folk, created with a veritable junk-shop of objects and archaic instruments. In its rejection of digitalisation, their sound is imbued with the spirit of the earth and the trees themselves….
sounding as old as the deepest-buried rocks
See, it's catching already. Still, this is organic, natural music, achieving the feat of sounding as old as the deepest-buried rocks. There's an almost mythical quality to their work that is nothing less than totally immersive. Other artists may have tried to hurl themselves aboard the 'World music' bandwagon (for example, Yeasayer's debut certainly bears some similarities), but most have been trapped under the wheels as their own pretensions masked any deeper understanding of the sounds they wished to emulate.
Devastates is Elfin Saddle's third full-length album, and, despite more than a few moments of magic thus far, is a crystallisation of their previous work, resulting in their most cohesive, consistently astonishing work to date.
From the opening track, you're sucked into a world where time and geography have no meaning. This is their vision, and they oblige you to live, however briefly, within it. Said song 'The Changing Wind', evokes exactly what the title describes.
Beginning with a period of calm, it picks up pace, guitar and banjo rolling over each other as hints of feedback loom on the horizon. Suddenly, the storm breaks into off-kilter, restrained chaos, all skittering rhythms and dual vocals evoking pagan celebrants rejoicing around a mountaintop bonfire. Onward it builds, swelling and rushing as elements of country, oriental and Scottish folk music are whirled around in the cyclone, until it finally subsides into a placid aftermath. What an intro.
Devastates – ELFIN SADDLE by Constellation Records
The intensity and inventiveness don't let up for Devastates' duration. 'Kiboho' is a throbbing, percussive mantra, Honda's voice soaring and wheeling over a stunning fusion of African, North American, Aboriginal and Asian tribal motifs. The elemental power that drives it seems to be drawn from something far beyond your average folk music.
All the way through, the album seems perfectly conceived, flowing naturally in a manner that could suggest changing seasons, evolutionary progress, or an epic migration. There's a vastness to it, an almost filmic nature that affects as much as it impresses. This tallies with Elfin Saddle's previous project- the astounding 40-minute stop-motion film 'Wurld', which told the story of a world's evolution, from verdant forest through developing civilisation to mechanised dystopia and eventual apocalypse, using only found objects staged in a single room, all to an enthralling soundtrack.
changing seasons, evolutionary progress, or an epic migration
No instrumentation is spared in creating the desired atmosphere, using mostly traditional implements blended in unexpected ways to create a dense, all-immersing sound. Both Honda and McKenzie sing, both in sing-song melodies, and often in gorgeous harmony. Honda's voice is a strong, clear, swooping revelation, McKenzie's is altogether more fragile, cracking and humbled in front of the massive sound. Both complement each other and the music perfectly.
Devastates really ought to be experienced as a whole, from beginning to end. There are no 'standout' tracks as such, just as there are no lulls in the quality. It's an experience, not just an album. Each track seems to have a symbiotic relationship with those before and after. For instance, the twinkling, placid 'Boats' seems to be the aftermath of the stormy 'Kiboho', but acts as a microcosmic foil to the monolithic throb of 'The Power And The Wake', which seems to buzz with the energy that inhabits all things.
This, in turn, sets up the release of 'Chaos Hand', which marches forth with determination and hunger, Honda and McKenzie's voices intertwining clamorously amongst a gathering swell of cymbal splashes, echoes and strident rhythms that spiral to a glorious climax, before dropping to a dead calm which is infiltrates by the anticipating rumblings and ancient majesty of 'Invocation'. 'In A blanket Of Leaves' is striking, resting as it does on what sounds like an age-old Scottish folk song, but with far more force, as it stirs like a sleeping giant and strides heavily onward.
Devastates – ELFIN SADDLE by Constellation Records
The one song that seems to stand firmly apart from the rest of the album is the closing track, 'The Wind Come Carry', with its a breezily wistful pop melody carried along by rattling rhythms and humming organs, with a massive chorus, all in a manner that would put Arcade Fire to shame. It represents a positive resolution to a musical journey through the whole gamut of emotions and experiences.
Elfin Saddle may well have their roots in some manner of new-age art project, but those very roots have produced something wonderful. Devastates bridges the radical and the traditional, the beautiful and the powerful, the obscure and the accessible, in ways never before imagined. This is deeply textured, earthy music, alive with mystic energies that are both timeless and ancient. Scintillating, mesmerising and original, it's a triumph, and a joy to listen to. Wherever Elfin Saddle go from here is anyone's guess, but it's bound to be absolutely fascinating.
Devastates is out now on Constellation Records