What’s in a name? I often wonder where some bands get their monikers from, take KingBathmat for instance, is there a land somewhere where a bath set is worshipped by an as yet undiscovered tribe of extremely clean people? I really like bands with interesting names; Airbag, Big Big Train, Caligula’s Horse, Edison’s Children and Gandalf’s Fist just to name a few. It shows great imagination on the part of the band for me and is a good precursor of the sort of music you are going to see, couple this with a great album cover and I’m usually happy. So, when the American progressive rock band Elephants of Scotland came to my attention, the name immediately had me interested then, take the brilliant album cover which, to me, has elements of Time Bandits running through it and my curiosity has definitely been piqued. A moment of caution though, a great name and great album cover generally mean good music for me but, there is always an exception to the rule. Would Elephants of Scotland join my pantheon of newly discovered great prog artists or be discarded by the wayside?
First, a little bit of history. Adam Rabin (vocals, keyboards) and Ornan McLean (drums & cymbals) had played in a cover band together for a while and realised that they saw eye to eye musically on progressive rock. After an abortive time with a guitarist from McLean’s previous act, they got together with John Whyte (guitar, vocals) who had performed in a one man show featuring many Rush covers. This new trio now were all dedicated to the tighter, more disciplined style that drew them all to the classics of the genre. That same week, Dan MacDonald posted an ad online looking for a band. They contacted Dan to play with the idea of expanding to a quartet. Personally and musically, they were all a great fit and Dan was quick to dedicate himself to the project. After almost a year of learning the existing material, rewriting it to suit the style of the band now, working on some brand-new material, and finding their groove as a live act, Elephants of Scotland recorded their first album, Home Away From Home, in late 2012 and released it in January 2013. For those that are as intrigued as I was, the name ‘Elephants of Scotland’ comes from a photography exhibit by noted photographer George Logan where wild animals were superimposed onto images of Scotland and the countryside, one of the more notable ones being an elephant in a highland village. In Adam Rabin’s own words, “There are no Elephants in Scotland. That’s part of what I like about the name. It’s just a Band name.”
Now the music, Home Away From Home is a 6 track album that weighs in at just over 40 minutes, so not overly bloated in prog terms. Adam was kind enough to tell me that, “The album doesn’t have a concept but there are themes running throughout. The main theme has to do with our relationship with our planet and the space around it. Geograph talks about our disregard for our environment and how we keep our head in the sand about climate change. The title track is about an alien who lands on Earth and tries to make sense of what it sees. “Starboard” is about a ship captain who goes mad trying to reconcile science and religion and ends up saying “to heck with it” and sails his ship into space off the edge of the horizon.”
First track Geograph rolls in with some nice keyboards and a cool bass line, the drums already adding a quality feel to proceedings. When Adam Rabin’s vocals kick in I am immediately reminded of IQ and the song has a similar vibe all the way through, a very tight rhythm section holding things together before an excellent solo from John Whyte, impressive musicianship all round here. Full Power has a delightful keyboard intro, lilting and quite mesmerising before the piano takes over, overlaid by the distinctive vocal. The song carries on in this vein as the guitar takes its place in the background helping everything run nice and smooth. The second half of the song is dominated by a lush and very 70’s mellotron style keyboard leading us on a wondrous journey before the vocals break back in to take us to the end of the song. Starboard opens with a haunting keyboard that almost has an alien and otherworldly sound to it before John Whyte’s guitar fires in with a great riff that is backed ably by the keyboards. There is a definite early Rush feel to this track, not surprising considering Whyte’s Rush covers background and is emphasised by his Geddy Lee style vocal. In places the song provides an injection of pace compared to the previous two tracks and fairly rattles along, driven hard by the bass and drums, it’s like being transported back to the heydays of 70’s prog rock but with a definite modern edge. The regular keyboard and guitar interplays work fantastically as do the vocal interchanges between Whyte and Rabin.
The Seed is one of those songs that, whilst seemingly in complete contrast to the rest of the album, works so well. If I didn’t know any better I would say I’ve stumbled on a forgotten relic of the synth pop era of the 1980’s. A mournful vocal glides over a soothing synth line and a pared back guitar note, all the while the smooth bass and pared back drums holding steady in the background. The solo is a gem in fact the guitar sound on this song is brilliant throughout, making the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Title track Home Away From Home is the shortest track on the album, a funky, reggae style guitar intro and strong vocal lead you into the track keeping a relatively slow pace until everything gets shaken up a little by the great guitar making use of some great effects. Taken on its own, the song could be said to be a bit short in stature but, in the context of the album as a whole it fits in well with the rest of the tracks. Final track Errol McSquisitor starts out as subdued and atmospheric and, dare I say it, almost pop music like. The keyboards, guitar, drum and bass are all laid bare and down-tempo and the vocal has a dream like quality. The atmosphere is ramped up as the keyboard takes on a glockenspiel like sound and the guitar intensifies taking us into an almost psychedelic direction, moody and ominous. The excellent drums come more into play as the song morphs even further and becomes a cinematic soundscape before one by one, the instruments take a bow and leave the scene leaving us with only an ethereal synthesiser to bring this excellent album to a close.
Elephants of Scotland should be rightly proud of their debut album, not once would you have said it was a self-produced album, the sound quality and mix are excellent. Taking its cues from traditional progressive rock but injecting it with some originality, Home Away From Home is a worthy addition to the ranks of impressive debut albums and I wait with bated breath for the follow up.