Love ‘em or hate ‘em, every heavy metal fan has to deal with Sleep. As standard bearers of the stoner doom movement of the early ’90s, Sleep smoked the Doobie of Truth, a slow-burning spliff that ignited Black Sabbath’s birth in the ’70s and continues to facilitate the creation of plodding, grooving ur-metal with mythological overtones to this very day. Sleep’s followers are legion: Bongzilla, Down, Electric Wizard, Nebula and Harvey Milk each expand on select parts of Sleep’s sound, but few bands in operation today invoke them all as fully as Boston’s Elder do on their self-titled debut.
The sound’s so familiar it feels like you could’ve been born banging your head to it. Pentatonic guitar riffs drenched in tube-amp fuzz and little spurts of blues jizz. Bass rumbling sympathetically all bobbing corpse style. Drums carving out crater-wide ruts. This kind of music lives and dies by its riffs, and Elder slay dragons over and over again with theirs. Mace meets face in the syncopated basher that opens “White Walls.” “Ghost Head” throws a vintage Tom Morello concoction under the wheels of a Hell’s Angels motorcade. So much classic heaviness passes through the nine minutes of “Hexe” that you’ll forget vocals comprised only about 45 seconds of it.
And about those vocals: Nick DiSalvo’s got a monophonic bellow somewhere in between Sleep’s Matt Pike and Phil Anselmo’s work with Down. Which is to say, vocals aren’t the highlight of Elder, and they mostly stick to the same herb-assisted, cosmic mind travel silliness as Sleep anyhow (sample couplet: “Earth behind me/ Universe in front/ Grab your matches, man/ Take a hit of the cosmic blunt”).
But if Elder lack ASG or Queens of the Stone Age’s way with a hooky melody, they’ve got more than enough textural invention to make up for it. The sumptuously spacey middle-section of “Riddle of Steel Pt. 1” trades Elder’s rolling paper for grade-A blotter paper. Elsewhere, tastefully applied acoustic guitars and keyboards raise Elder out of the bongwater of their Sleep reverence.
If anything holds Elder back from the attention it deserves, it’ll be shitty timing. The album was soft-released the same week that Sleep announced a 2009 reunion show at All Tomorrow’s Parties in the U.K., and the street release is the same day as doom-metal legend Wino’s long-awaited solo debut. But this is a debut album. In the immortal words of Matt Pike, Elder’s got plenty of time to “Drop out of life with bong in hand/ Follow the smoke toward the riff-filled land.”