Album Reviews

Elephants of Scotland- Execute and Breathe

Phrases to strike fear into the hearts of any budding artists, ‘sophomore release’ or ‘that difficult second album’, for some reason, have become industry standard to suggest that, any band who have a relatively successful (be it commercial or critical) debut release may struggle to produce a follow up release that lives up to the same standards.

Is it because the first album has had a longer development period under its belt and the band have had plenty of trial and error in touring the album to see what does or doesn’t work? Is it more prevalent to acts that are signed to bigger labels where commercial success is the name of the game and, therefore, a second release is rushed out to capitalise on that initial success? If we extrapolate on that theory, does it mean that an independent act, or an act signed to smaller label that doesn’t feel the need to compromise the artist’s integrity, can lavish the same amount of love and attention on their second release and fine tune and hone the album until it is as near a a perfect as it can be?

Food for thought indeed and, after reviewing the mighty fine first album released by Elephants of Scotland, ‘Home Away From Home’, it was something that crossed my mind when the opportunity to review their so called ‘sophomore’ release ‘Execute and Breathe’ was afforded me. I was seriously impressed with the first album which led me to be very much intrigued by what this foursome from Vermont would deliver as a follow up.

Check out my review of ‘Home Away From Home’ for an in depth look at the line up and history of Elephants of Scotland but, as a quick précis, this is what has happened in their world so far. Formed in 2009 by Adam Rabin (vocals keyboards), the band also comprises Dan (Tenacious) Macdonald (bass), Ornan McLean (drums) and John Whyte (guitar, vocals). The band produce old school progressive rock songs with a modern edge and, being early adopters of the internet as a marketing tool, have garnered many fans throughout the world. Their music is self-produced and released and, in their own words, “the new album will focus on songwriting but, this time, with a much heavier and layered style.”

Now, those of you who know me will know I love a great album cover and, after the intriguing cover of ‘Home Away From Home’, I wasn’t let down by what adorned the front of the new album, an android staring into a goldfish bowl on its knee! I couldn’t wait to get straight to the heart of the matter so, after a second’s pause to get myself a coffee, it was press play and delve into ‘Execute and Breathe’.

The album begins with A Different Machine and, to me, it’s the classy sound I have come to expect from these guys, a steady riff and swirling keyboard slide into view with an insistent edge before the vocals chime in, raw and powerful. There was always a hint of Rush to the band before and, on this song especially, that is enforced by the punch to the vocals and the energetic drumming. The guitar and keyboard solos are neat, precise and classy and the bass playing is evocative of Geddy Lee at his finest but, always keeps the bands identity first and foremost. This track is upbeat and the chorus and vocals are very catchy. A fine introduction to the album but, would what follows show a further maturity to the sound of Elephants of Scotland? The chiming intro to The Other Room leads into a more laid back track where the vocals overlay layered guitar and keyboards waft you along. The song has a touch of mainstream rock to it with that progressive edge the band do so well. The guitar is practiced and smooth and the bass-line keeps everything in check. I love the emotional feel of the vocals and the 80’s inspired synth sound is a highlight, I asked for a more mature sound and the band deliver in spades with a gentle piano leading up to another slice of that delectable guitar sound, so far, so good!

Amber Waves begins with an elegant piano intro before the vocals kick in with an emotive edge and this is the central theme of the whole song, the piano is used as the main centre point for the other instruments to work around. The bass, drums and guitar provide a quality accompaniment to this stylish track and interjections from a graceful acoustic guitar and cultivated keyboards are nice touches. The song takes on a more assertive persona halfway through and starts to build to a crescendo with the crunching riff and swirling Hammond organ expertly added to the mix. This track is where the upward curve of the songwriting is really noticeable, the composition and execution have a thoughtful elegance to them making this song a real stand out and impressive part of the album, the way the song runs out is brilliant. TFAY (To Forget About You) has a clever introduction that reminds me of the ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ tune before solid drumming and a steady riff kick in with an almost military bearing and we are off, fast paced and pulsating with bass line to match,the vocals urging you along. Scorching licks are fired off at irregular intervals to add another dimension to the track and that early Rush influence is very prominent on this song, another track that showcases the linear development of the band and that heavier style that they were aiming for. A layered, harmonic guitar note introduces Boxless, it has an almost oriental sound to it before the snappy drums take the lead, aided and abetted by the cool synth note. The vocals are measured and precise giving the song a vibe that has echoes of the 80’s about it, especially with that clever chiming guitar note. The brilliant synth and vocal run towards the end of the track is a real nod to the period and leaves me feeling well satisfied with what I’ve been given, very stylish indeed!

A guitar and synthesiser intro of manic proportions fires in the brilliant Endless (pt. 1), an instrumental that delivers on almost every level with its huge progressive style and feel. The guitar playing is scintillating and exceedingly proficient, the keyboards are given a life of their own and the bass and drums add their own inimitable style to complete the picture. Once again the band show that they have progressed to a higher plane on all levels. The track segues seamlessly into Endless (pt. 2) where a luscious acoustic guitar and keyboard lull your senses allowing the effortless vocal to slide into your subconscious. There is an epic feel to this track, it is the most technical and complete song on the album but achieves that without any apparent effort. When the vocal harmonies begin it almost echoes bands like BarclayJames Harvest with its folk style. Around 3 minutes into the song it achieves critical mass and explodes into a Prog supernova, the drums go Into overload, the bass becomes more than just an instrument, the guitar fires off riffs and solos that make your hair stand on end and the keyboards acquire a place in the Prog rock hall of fame! Any progressive rock band would be proud to produce a track of this calibre and finesse and it should go on to be a classic and a live staple, the ethereal piano laden ending is a stroke of genius.

A crunching riff and thunderous drums herald Mousetrap, this is the heaviest track I’ve ever heard the band perform and the guitar really hits you in the midriff, the one-two completed by the mountainous drums. Throw in some smart synth interludes to hold the wolf from the door and, once again, Elephants of Scotland show an adroitness to their song writing that, perhaps, wasn’t present before. It’s like a mix of heavy metal riffing and drumming with Prog rock keyboards and bass and a vocal that neatly sits astride both and showcases the added complexity of layers that the band wished to add. As the final track on a suitably impressive album, it wraps things up very neatly indeed.

Always perceived by this reviewer as a band to look out for, Elephants of Scotland have taken that stigma of the ‘difficult second album’ and, metaphorically, stuffed it where the sun doesn’t shine. Taking all the ingenuity of ‘Home Away From Home’ and developing it into something much more rounded and complete, ‘Execute and Breathe’ should elevate the band to another level and give them the recognition they so wholeheartedly deserve.

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