Elder Ones is a New York based quartet led by vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, who writes the tunes and also plays harmonium and analogue synth. Also featured are Matt Nelson on saxophone, Nick Dunstan on bass and Max Jaffe on drums. ‘From Untruth’, their second album, differs conceptually from their previous outing, ‘Holy Science’, pursuing more political topics. Sonically, the often sparse arrangements are now embellished with electronic instruments and effects on the acoustic instruments. These additions actually sound quite low tech which seems to suit the primal feel of the music. There are four tracks here.
‘Eat The Rich’ starts the album at a funereal tempo. Voice solely accompanied by the droning harmonium sets the tone. They are slowly joined by the other instruments. There’s a more uptempo middle section, with some pleasing vocal gymnastics in a South Indian percussive style and a supporting sax improvisation. The track closes with the unequivocal mantra of ‘Eat the rich or die starving.’ A march for the dead for our times.
Listening to Kidambi’s vocals is an intense experience. Her often wordless lines energetically and assertively flit from precise tonality to whispers, howls and screams. However, that’s not to suggest there’s a lack of control, the delivery is very disciplined. On the occasions she does use words, it’s often repetitive sentences which again emphasise the directness in the themes of this album.
While ‘Eat The Rich’ has quite a rigid musical arc, ‘Dance of the Subaltern’ is more improvisational. The verses are musically more conventional (even with more words) but between them, there’s space for some fine musicianship before the exciting and chaotic conclusion. ‘Decolonize the Mind’ begins with a percussive attack from drums and vocals, the bass is bowed at times to augment the harmonium in a drone effect then the song locks into a sax led Asian influenced groove. The set closer, the epic ’From Untruth’, reins in some of the aggression of the previous tracks for a beautiful and moving conclusion. The rhythm section excels on this last track.
In times of social turmoil, an artist can choose to provide escapism for their audience or feel compelled to address concerns face on. While Elder Ones music may be viewed as abstract and eclectic, the message here is direct and overtly political. At times, I feel that the performances, with the eagerness to convey this message, lean into the melodramatic. On the other hand, I do love a melodrama! While it would be easy to dismiss this album’s effectiveness as a call to arms, it would be even easier with this type of music for the artist to ignore such mundane and trivial stuff as everyday life. Elder Ones is using the tools it has to try to make a positive difference and that has to be admired. To quote from the closing track, ‘From darkness into light’.