Unearthed: El Ten Eleven- Transitions
Posted in Unearthed
The Lockheed L-1011 TriStar was a failed commercial jet, repurposed by the British military to launch rockets into space. Traditionally, putting a satellite into space was possible only from established launch sites such as Cape Canaveral. By the use of a specialized rocket, the TriStar could put a satellite into orbit from anywhere in the sky, and therein the world. In it’s own way, the Lockheed L-1011 helped to democratize the heavens.
El Ten Eleven take their name from that plane. Transitions, the band's latest LP, serves much the same purpose as the rocket kept aboard the TriStar. Though the album won’t see an official release until November 6th, it is currently streaming on Spotify. Anyone with a computer can freely experience the band’s transcendent take on math-rock, which in its own right is a satellite with which to explore the celestial sphere.
El Ten Eleven fuse the complexities of math-rock with the grandeur of post-rock, resulting in sound that is both cerebral and accessible. In the late 90’s, a group of midwestern bands signed to the Polyvinyl label popularized a virtuosic take on indie rock that lay in sharp contrast with earlier musical stylings of the same era. Britpop and grunge took guitar playing a step backward, emphasizing simplicity and songwriting over technical chops. Bands like American Football and Tortoise pushed rock music in the opposite direction, showing a jazz indebted sense of musicianship that emphasized technically difficult but superbly musical guitar lines.
Much of Transitions sounds athletic, but without sacrificing musicality for technical showboating. “Tiger Tiger” is driven forward by muscular riffs and ornate guitar lines that tastefully fit within the greater context of the piece. Guitarist Kristian Dunn plays a double necked guitar, an instrument usually associated with 80’s excess and hair metal. One neck is that of a typical six-string electric guitar, and the other that of a bass guitar. By tapping (a la mode de Eddie Van Halen, but with taste) instead of strumming, Dunn is able to play both instruments at once, allowing the duo to achieve a full bodied sound despite personale limits. El Ten Eleven also make extensive use of looping in live performances. Sampling allows the band to present their songs in a live setting as they are heard on the album, despite the fact that only two musicians are on stage.
Dunn loops guitar and bass using a pedal, and Fogarty triggers loops from a electronic drum pads and a MIDI keyboard setup as part of his drum kit.
Though sampling is mostly used to enable live performances, it also informs the bands studio work. Transitions has a loop based sound reminiscent of electronic music. Songs like “Transitions” and “Yellow Bridges” are lengthy, cyclical compositions that extrapolate extensively on a handful of musical phrases. While much of the band’s sound is indebted to looping, it also proves to be Transitions one significant downfall. The album has a “samey” feel to it that becomes especially apparent on the records second half.
The band combats this sense of sameness through an exceptionally varied sonic palette, a rarity amongst post-rock bands. Many post-rockers avoid processed sounds, instead preferring the natural aesthetic of orchestral recordings. As a duo, the two members of El Ten Eleven each have a lot of space to fill sonically. Even with the use of looping, it would be impossible for the group to achieve the same sense of sonic richness that bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor achieve by having five guitarist (and a menagerie of other instrumentalists) play at once. The use of guitar pedals and unconventional playing techniques impart a uniqueness on the band’s compositions that masks, if not replaces, the need for greater instrumentation. Alien sounding riffs are contrasted against familiar rock progressions to create a sense of wonder bewilderment.
The brilliance of Transitions lies in its allowance for dissociation. Many post-rock outfits attempt to coax emotion from the listener, employing dynamics like a leash to create a sense of closeness where there is none. Transitions is a gorgeous soundscape as much as it is a collection of songs. Late album cuts “Birth” and “Lullaby” allow one to escape inside themselves, finding emotion in oneself instead of in the song.
Pop music is the soundtrack of our modern lives. People connect songs to feelings, experiences and memories. Record collections and iTunes libraries are maps of our persons, aural rorschach tests that gauge one’s personality and predispositions. Post-rock is especially well suited to being soundtrack music (or a psychological test). As a genre, post-rock is generally impressionistic and largely instrumental, qualities that allow the listener to project their own experiences into the music. Transitions provides an excellent sonic playground upon which to explore the human condition.
Transitions is available for pre-order here.