Elephant Gym’s math rock acrobatics stretches the limits of melody, storytelling and atmosphere.
The Dreams that Elephant Gym conjure in their latest album goes through many landscapes. There are the evocations of foggy city nights in Through the Night on one end, and the blissful serenity of Dreamlike in the other. This is an album that pits precise musicianship with a sprawling sense of musical direction – all the different ambience in which the word “dream” might spur in a person’s mind.
Elephant Gym is one act amongst many electrifying math rock scenes of East Asia. What sets them apart though is their inclination to occasionally dive into what can almost be considered as classical or baroque. Syncopated lines and complex time signatures often fall into beautiful piano suites – as if amidst the tornado of improvisational chaos, a calm garden resides. Dreams hones this even more masterfully, because it dares to oscillate wildly between the tornado and the calm. They are still beautiful and gorgeous in the right doses, but also tastefully tumultuous when time calls for excitement. The album starts of with Anima, a bossa nova cut with a playful disregard for convention. The added flute throughout this track is the quirky bowtie that wraps the track up. Go Throughthe Night chimes in a little mild, but it’s where the true ambient craftsmanship of the album begins. The keys sprinkled throughout offer a hazy urban melancholia. Nothing really jumps at you, but the atmosphere it creates acts an amazing prologue for the twist and turns of Shadows. The next track is a great example of the band using math rock quirks to weave around the limits of genre. Shadows is a simmering pan of 9mm8’s jazzy smokey vocals and suspenseful melody. Around the 1:20 mark, the guitars start to mewl and the amazing drums start to skitter as though evoking a trance. Shadows is the type of song that keeps on giving. At the end the guitars start to sound like turntables. In Witches, Elephant Gym takes on a more belligerent front – armed with syncopated arrangements like machine guns. It’s one of Elephant Gym’s best compositions in their discography. And the innovation just keeps on growing. In multiple directions, almost all at once. Deities’ Party is another one of Elephant Gym’s best ever. The guitar lines on Deities’ Party is luscious to the point of epic. It also gets just a tiny bit demented in the second part as though signalling a party about to hit its peak – where the divine fireworks will explore and all the crazy chaos of Fate will collide. In that chaos, the superb bass line truly leads the dance complete with chopped up voice samples to encase the song with an ethereal feel. The chant is clear. Here is where the gods party – watch your step.
Wings keeps up this wonderful madness, courtesy of Kaohsiung City Wind Orchestra, the horns come in like a triumphant cavalcade while the bass slides and take a mischievous turn, If you need a victory soundtrack with a mathy AND jazzy feel, these are the sounds that will lift you up.
…the innovation just keeps on growing. In multiple directions, and almost all at once.
Yet on top of all of the maximalist twist and tricks of the songs above, Elephant Gym also shines in the arena of simplicity. Dreamlike was a curveball, where instead of slamming you with over-the-top cutthroat ear-splitting musician ship, Elephant Gym presents a wonderful suite of resplendent keys slowly morphing into ambient paradise. As if the band is afraid that you might have forgotten that they’re all for chopping things up, the pianos stop flowing through the modes and become a subtle experimental score, like a substitute for rain.
Happy but Sad doesn’t feel like Elephant Gym at all, but in the best way. Here the band proves the capacity to shine in straightforward songcraft. There are no gratuitous instrumentations here. No musical rollercoaster. Happy but Sad says “Here, take a break, have a warm cup of cocoa, and wrap yourself in the blankets of a soft acoustic whisper”. It’s succinct. And arguably more emotionally profound than many of Elephant Gym’s more maximal tracks.
The album doesn’t just contain abstractions. It also has a more grounded and human side. It’s not just the festivity of deities that is given the spotlight. Dear Humans is a sweet jazzy respite fading in and out of dreamscapes. Fableplays with a monologue that sounds matter-of-fact and everyday, but nonetheless flows in rhythm to the instruments. In the final track, Dreams of You, singer-songwriter Lin Sheng Xiang, once dubbed the Taiwanese Woody Guthrie who plays Hakka folk songs, performs a ballad of sci-fi proportions. The piercing synth melodies, the little bleep and bloops that go over the basslines, adding texture to the track.
Relative to the rest of the album, Gaze of Blue, is more cookie cutter Elephant Gym. This is where the they take the classic math rock peaks and troughs. That being said, embedded within it is a satisfying sense of soft sorrow and suspense as if saying that if you gaze too long into the blue, the blue will get to you.
Dreams is home to many visions, many of them showing the constant need to playfully and atmospherically explore new territories. Elephant Gym’s craftsmanship constantly improves as well. Everything from performance to arrangement has a little extra to them. But Dreams is barely an album. It seems to be held strong by a sense of growth, but maybe its only flaws is the lack of rooting in any true narrative or concept. Does that make Dreams a bad album? Not at all. It’s a maximalist rollercoaster, for sure. But not all rollercoasters are worth riding twice.
Revisiting the favourites though would never feel old. I’m still going to be bumping Deities’ Party for a long while.