It is a busy moment for The Elephant Trees. The Manchester-based band has just embarked on a tour (under the emblematic title of ‘Depressed Kids Disco’), they are now out with their debut EP, quite possibly marking the beginning of a new phase in their production and bringing to the studio some of the immersive energy they have on more than one occasion demonstrated on stage. Monachopsis is without doubt an ambitious record, more than prepared to take the more difficult road on both songwriting and producing decisions, while managing to still hang on, for most of its six tracks, to a somewhat traditional structure that works as a connection to the vast history of rock music (and beyond) on whose shoulders the band is figuratively standing. Founding band members Martha Phillips and Sam Hugh-Jones are clearly omnivorous in their music consumption, and this translates very clearly in the sound captured by the record.
Fittingly for an EP, Monachopsis cuts straight to the chases, with very little in the way of preambles; its six tracks are short, compact and straight to the point, though most of them endeavour, primarily through a clever use of changes of tempo and mood, to come across as longer than they actually are, giving the impression that each track really contains a microcosmos of its own that has been painstakingly engineered by the band, both at the songwriting stage and in the studio. The downside of this attention to detail is that it sometimes results in what can come across as an excess of production; the sharp edge Phillips’ vocals always possess in the band’s live shows is somewhat dulled by the production on some of the tracks, and some of the finer interplay in the instrumental lines is submerged by studio revisiting. It feels at times like under some of these tracks a crisper, more incisive version is lurking, likely ready to be released in all its true power at a live show, but instead hidden behind the veil of an overbearing production.
Regardless, the record is a coherent, immersive exploration of mood and atmosphere, with a great potential for an eminently danceable live show. ‘I Don’t Know What I Want Anymore,’ an opening track that feels made to be a single, eases the listener into the record slowly, with a long instrumental hook devolving into a more recognisable, quicker-paced beat. A clever use of silence and interruption disrupts the track into an unconventional rhythm, creating a tension around what’s going to happen next that resolves itself in a layered, only apparently chaotic final section that owes something to David Bowie, Earthling-era. Fellow single ‘Idiot‘ (the title word is teased throughout the track, and only uttered in explosive relief at the very end) is equally engaging and quite possibly the strongest song on the record; there’s a bit of a female Nick-Cave vibe here and there, the almost-spoken sections are tapping into a classic-punk vibe, while the very recognisable instrumental riff goes back to the harder rock of the late ’90s/early ’00s. It’s a song that packs more of a heavy punch and it suits the band’s voice particularly well; the deliberate repetition of musical phrases is not a problem here, but rather an intentional device making it also a perfect track for live performance.
The slower tracks, on the other hand, are not always as well-focused, and the results are somewhat mixed. ‘4100‘ is paired with and preceded by an interlude that is really a track in its own right, but the two do benefit from being listened to in the correct sequence; the interlude plays around with an electronic, almost-EDM sound that lends it additional texture, and the following track, while still slightly overproduced, especially on the vocals, is darker and rougher, with a thick, sticky mood to it. Almost-unintelligible voices are a recurring theme in these two tracks, resurfacing in a slightly unnerving way. They give the EP a hefty middle section, more cerebral than the rest of the record. On the other hand, ‘Bricks & Mortar‘ is a quasi-pop ballad with slower sections that can feel a bit too derivative at times, not as creative and impactful as the rest of the record; this is a band that does best when they detach themselves from pop stylemes.
Closing track ‘2 Seconds‘ is also the longest on the record. It has scratchy production – like it ended up in the hands of a moody deejay – and cleaner vocals. The pace is slower, even with the same kind of syncopated drum section that has been ever present through the record like a connecting thread; there is a longer, more liberated guitar section which creates a mood like the song is rolling along in waves. It is apt that the EP ends on a track which is as strong and atmospheric as the opening one; there is a feeling that the record has a deliberate circularity to it. Overall, as the final, heavily distorted sounds close the record on a somewhat tense note, a feeling lingers that Monachopsis, fittingly for a debut EP, serves as an introduction and a promise of more things to come; what remains after the listening is done is primarily a sense of expectation.
The record cultivates an immersive sound that is best appreciated in the quiet and on headphones, yet it is easy to imagine it evoking an intense mood in a live show. Some of the tracks in it clearly have the potential for a double life of this sort, and such a versatility is a welcome trait for a band that mixes dance and rock, pop and electronica, to construct a genuine voice of their own. Where the EP can feel in places somewhat derivative, the ingenuity in other sections points to great room for growth. There will be something interesting to witness, surely, as The Elephant Trees take to the stage again.
Monachopsis is out now. Catch The Elephant Trees on tour throughout November, tickets are available here.
The Elephant Trees’ upcoming tour dates are, as follows:
Thu 21/11/19 – London – The Monarch
Thu 28/11/19 – Glasgow – Stereo (Supporting 100 Fables)
Fri 29/11/19 – Leeds – Belgrave Music Hall