elephant9 are Norway´s psych-jazz answer to Medeski Martin & Wood – a Hammond-driven trio that has successfully crossed over to the alt. rock circuit. Their last album, Atlantis – their third, but the first in cahoots with Dungen guitarist Reine Fiske – was relentlessly exhilarating. On Silver Mountain they don’t even attempt to match that album’s compacted, irresistibly propulsive momentum, but try something different instead. The new album is more considered, moodier and more panoramic, a double in vinyl terms containing five tracks between 10 and 22 minutes, one of which is a version of a Stevie Wonder song.
The tightly structured, multi-sectional “Occidental”, the album’s lead track and baited hook, begins purposefully, with pulsing chromium-glide spy theme rhythm and string synth fx. A brief Led Zep-ish break then bridges to an ambient interlude before that initial rhythm kicks back in harder than before, and the quartet play variations before wrapping things up in under fourteen minutes.
Stevie Wonder’s “You are the Sunshine of My Life” is unrecognisable, and thankfully non-saccharine. It begins in edgy ambience, and plays out as a propulsive, trippy mood piece, the quartet slowly tightening the grip of a recurring melodic head.
Storløkken’s sound, incubated in the Supersilent sound lab, is a restive and wired mix of contemporary and analogue electronics, meshing beautifully with Fiske’s guitars throughout, investing the music with a corona of luminosity. The elephant9 sound is power- or nu-prog; a sound free of the self-indulgence, bad taste and baroque excess that tainted even the best of the old-school (cf. Rick Wakeman’s “Cans and Brahms” on Yes’ otherwise mostly exemplary Fragile). Fiske is multivalent, both self-effacing and penetratingly, incisively dextrous and tasteful; his work is frequently astonishing.
After a short intro, “Abhartach” kicks up into cyber-funk mode, with Storløkken, soloing righteously, drawing thunderous support from the ceaselessly inventive Eilertsen/Lofthus rhythm section. This is the album’s most viscerally thrilling cut. Tightly circumscribed by a fade on the first breakdown, it’s the shortest, most direct and rawly ‘live’ piece on an album that’s otherwise carefully, even rigidly sequenced.
The two remaining cuts are both long, and both comprised of multiple contrasting movements.
“Kungsten” is an initially bustling, percussive number that transitions after seven minutes to a suspenseful shimmer of strummed electric bass, organ and electric guitar. Disjointed interruptions soon signal a new shift, into propulsive jamming that rolls on to the track’s natural ending after thirteen minutes. But there’s a gentle, dreamy coda in 70s folk-inflected rock mode, Fiske’s fine acoustic guitars foregrounded, and then another, grittier, passage of thrumming momentum after eighteen minutes, shortly clipped to fashion a decisive ending.
The last piece, “The Above Ground Sound”, is even longer, at just over 21 minutes. It courses through a turbulent and rather frenetic opening only to break into light and space with a sylvan passage of acoustic rock with a regular and increasingly brisk and insistent pulse, then segueing to a calm interlude of misty, barely-there ambience, then gradually ramping back up to intensity with stormy percussion breaks and lashings of classic progressive Hammond. A relaxation after 18 minutes restores the former sense of calm, with psychedelic electric strings combining with electronic keys over an easy-rolling, funk-inflected rhythm track.
I compared Atlantis favourably with early Mark II Deep Purple, mostly because of the Hammond connection and a shared grittiness of sound and compulsive dynamic. I hear the classic rockers in elephant9’s DNA like it’s there in Korekyojinn and Acid Mother’s Temple, alongside other influences. But Storløkken’s creativity is more accurately comparable to the Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge than Deep Purple’s Jon Lord, and the classic rock and prog paradigms are less pertinent on Silver Mountain, anyway. It is tightly circumscribed where you might expect it to sprawl, and all its energies are channeled into subdivisions, textural collective interplay winning out over virtuoso exhibitionism, individual contributions subsumed into a group dynamic.
OK, so I prefer Atlantis, but it was probably wise not to plunge straight down the rabbit hole after it with the follow-up. Silver Mountain pushes the elephant9 envelope while reining in the excesses, such as they were, and that’s a smart move.
Ståle Storløkken Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes, upright piano, Mellotron, Minimoog, Prophet T8; Nikolai Hængsle Eilertsen electric bass, acoustic guitars, percussion; Torstein Lofthus drums, percussion; Reine Fiske electric and acoustic guitars, percussion.
elephant9 with Reine Fiske – Atlantis + Motorpsycho – Blissard 4CD.
Motorpsycho and Ståle Storløkken – The Death Defying Unicorn + Bushman’s Revenge – A Little Bit of Big Bonanza.
Møster – Inner Earth.
Buy Silver Mountain direct from Rune Grammofon.