“When you’re looking for a band name, I know it sounds weird, but everything you look at, everything you observe and read, you kind of think, ‘Man, maybe that could be our band name.'” – Dave Haywood.
I’ve spoken in the past of how, on one side, a band’s name can alienate them from an audience or, on the other, how it can grab people’s attention and generate interest in the artist.
I first heard of Elephants of Scotland through bandcamp and the incongruity of the name got me wanting to find out more about it and the band behind the name.
Apologies if you’ve heard this story before but, while researching the band for my review of their debut album from 2013 ‘Home Away From Home’, I got talking to the band’s bassist and unofficial spokesperson Dan MacDonald and he revealed how the band came to be called Elephants of Scotland…….
The name Elephants of Scotland comes from a photography exhibit by noted photographer George Logan where wild animals were superimposed onto images of Scotland and the countryside, one of the more notable ones being an elephant in a highland village (above). In keyboard player Adam Rabin’s own words,
“There are no Elephants in Scotland. That’s part of what I like about the name. It’s just a Band name.”
The band is completed by Ornan McLean (drums and percussion) and John Whyte (guitar) who shares vocal duties along with Dan and Adam. They have released two albums to date, 2013’s ‘Home Away From Home’ and ‘Execute and Breathe’, from 2014.
With the release of their latest musical tapestry ‘The Perfect Map’, Elephants of Scotland themselves up to a broader variety of styles and songs. They continue to keep the “rock” in progressive rock with their high energy performances while employing elements of folk, balladry, and Eastern music.
‘The Perfect Map’ was not conceived as a single unified piece nor does it tell a single story like many concept albums in the progressive rock genre. Each song was written independently. It wasn’t until all of the songs were written that a clear theme emerged which then helped the band create the order of the tracks. The album could be seen as an examination of our journey through the various stages of life from childhood to death.
Adam goes on to explain,
“The whole idea of the album concept started with the contradiction: How could we have “Counting on a Ghost” on the same album as “The Perfect Map”? The former being anti-religion and the latter having the refrain of “Man plans and God laughs.” How could we challenge the existence of God in one song and acknowledge it in another?
I had written “The Perfect Map” about the foolishness of making plans. But the lyric is just as much about Man’s plan to find Truth or to find a simple answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything. It’s a moving target – it’s unknowable. If you think you’re on the right path then you’re definitely on the wrong one.
Then I realized that each song deals with a foolish pursuit for “what we want the most.” “Orphans” is about longing for healing; “Counting on a Ghost” about Truth; “One By Sea” about controlling love; “Swing the Gavel” about justice; and “The Perfect Map” about control of our destinies.
None of these topics is knowable or controllable. So, I wouldn’t get caught up in the topic of God or religion (which are two VERY different things, remember). Rather, focus on humanity’s relationships with all of these concepts – our need to explain the unexplainable – and how fleeting knowledge really is.
The resolution is in “Random Earth” which accepts that everything really is out of our control and we should spend more time appreciating the beauty of each moment.”
Opening track Sun-Dipped Orphans and the Wizard’s Teapot is the first of three lyrical contributions on this album from Greg Skillman. One possible reading of this lyric is from a Jungian perspective where we spend our childhood forming our ego through the mother archetype, apparently…. The song opens with a great piece of drumming over which some intricate keyboards and guitars lay the melody. For anyone who knows Elephants of Scotland, the sound is instantly recognisable. The feel good instrumental opening really allows the music to shine and puts a smile on your face before the vocals begin. Nicely harmonised and layered, there is a feel of alternative, even jazz-infused rock to the voices, like Ben Folds had joined a progressive rock band. The musicianship is of a high pedigree and you find yourself on a crest of a progressive influenced wave, surfing to the beat and I love the abrupt ending.
The immediate feel of Counting On A Ghost is a large slice of Rush influence. Keyboards, drums and guitar all have that late 80’s power trio feel. The vocals are dynamic and edgy. On this song Skillman and Rabin collaborated on the lyric challenging the trust we often place in empty in promises whether it’s religion, politicians, each other, or even ourselves. The harder we try to nail down what Truth really is, the further we get from it. Serious, compelling and determined, it drives on at a fair lick, holding your attention with every note. Let the music wash over you and there are some delicate intricacies that run throughout as well and Rabin really does earn his corn on this track, his keyboards are immense. The caustic guitar solo sees Whyte channeling his inner Alex Lifeson and you find yourself nodding appreciatively at the complexities of the musical mosaic being played out in front of you.
On One By Sea the band brought in guest vocalist Megan Beaucage (a former bandmate of Rabin, Whyte, and McLean in their old cover band side project). Emmy award-winning composer and violinist Gary Kuo (a childhood friend of MacDonald) also takes the track to a new level. A gentle piano opens the song before Megan’s delicate, fragile voice brings an etehreal and otherworldly feel to this part of the song. There is a sheer beauty to her singing that almost moves you to tears and you are transfixed by the sincerity at its core. Gary Kuo’s violin adds some real heart and soul and, also, vibrancy as the song then opens up into a foot-tapping country jazz romp. A quite uplifting track with some wonderful nuances deep at the heart of the matter.
The first track that Dan shared with me was the heavily medieval folk influenced Swing the Gavel, written for Musea Records’ “The Decameron” compilation, it is based on a 14th Century story by Boccaccio. Rabin breaks out some recorder flutes in the verses and a thinly-veiled double entendre in the choruses. It feels light hearted throughout, that delightful sound of the recorder is impish in its delivery and the mandolin adds the required authenticity. You could almost imagine the band capering around in medieval garb, like a host of Royal Fools entertaining their Lord and his guests. The chorus is really addictive and catchy and the whole track just breezes past in a maelstrom of fun and frivolity. An up-to-date instrumental section, still full of all the fun of the fayre, keeps the jovial and buoyant atmosphere going and you get the impression that this would be a bundle of fun to play live, a really jovial and lighthearted track.
The Perfect Map is about the foolishness of making plans or expecting the future to play out exactly how we want. The past two years since their last album has been challenging for each member on a personal level. Lots of changes and losses. This is a lesson learned the hard way. Percussionist Joe Netzel contributes a tasty doumbek track to add to the exotic feel on the song. There is an eastern, mystical feel to the opening of the song, exotic sounds evoke exotic smells whirling around your mind with a subtle psychedelic undertone. The vocals start edgy and low down, almost hesitant and the guitar note is full of eastern promise. Mysterious and enigmatic, it slowly worms its way into your psyche with its slow burning spiritual ambiance.
“Man plans and God laughs.”
There’s an overtone of ambiguity and uncertainty at the heart of things here, searching for a resolution to the eternal question. It’s a very thoughtful and thought provoking track, intelligent and inquisitive and one that plants a seed in your consciousness, left there to flower at a later date. The keyboard takes centre stage with its beguiling and hypnotic tone and you are left entranced by the intricate melody and precise percussion delivered by Adam and Ornan. A perceptive and creative song that maybe leaves more questions than it answers.
The last lyric on the album, Random Earth is about accepting that we will never have any lasting control over our world or even ourselves.
“I’ll never know what I am. The idea is ever-shifting.”
Quite a philosophical song, it opens with a pulsating and questioning 80’s sounding keyboard and guitar riff. The vocal begins, questing and searching and the drums add weight to those questions. This is pure Elephants of Scotland, a sound I have come to appreciate more and more for its involving and interwoven melodies and influential rhythm section. It takes that forceful power trio feel of Rush and adds barely perceptible hues of its own to create something engaging and refreshing. There are moments of calm and clarity and also flashes of complexity and esoteric profundity, something for all progressive fans. You can lose yourself in the music and hear different subtleties every time you listen to it, the guitar and keyboards on this track are at their most bullish and impressive, it’s Prog Jim but not necessarily as we know it……
The album closes with Für Buddy, a requiem for Adam Rabin’s dog and the band’s long-time mascot who died during the writing stage of this album. Buddy had attended just about every practice since the band’s inception. A moving instrumental that leaves a tear in your eye and a lump in your throat, the beautiful music is a fitting tribute to the loss of someone close to their heart and gives the the album a poignant ending.
This impressive Vermont four-piece just keep getting better and better and are forging a truly unique identity in the world of progressive rock. ‘The Perfect Map’ is another tour-de-force from these rather fine musicians who take incisive, intelligent lyrics and combine them with some of the best music around. Find it in the Progressive Rock section under ‘E’ and just buy it, trust me, it is well worth your money!
Released 17th June 2016