Review & Stream
Elephant Gym builds worlds through a bass-driven, jazz-and-funk-inflected writing style that teems with agile, articulate excitement. While commonly associated with the sub-genre of math-rock, Elephant Gym employs their own unique technical candor, with rhythms and melodies that never cross the line into uncomfortable angularity.
On Underwater, Elephant Gym's latest release and second full-length, there was no single composer overseeing the record. To the end of unlocking new sounds for themselves, each member took turns leading production and compositional roles during the creation of the album. The result is an expansive cohesion of diverse songs which flow in and out of one another like water. Vocal cameos by international collaborators provide another compelling dimension to the record, emboldening a group usually known for their instrumental compositions. The band explains that "'Underwater' is an idea about a kind of private, mysterious space." It's a place where one may go to ponder or concentrate, to clear one's head, or to just blow off some steam in solitude. So, too, is Underwater fundamentally about immersion: immersion in the chaos of feeling, living in the throes of being human-sized in the infinite expanse of existence. Elephant Gym deftly weaves this universal concept into their signature sound without ever pulling you out of your personal space, leaving you to yourself underwater.
Review: Underwater features 3 hidden tracks that are not available for public streaming; "Shower," "Lake" and "Speechless."
The first track "Shower" is an instrumental xylophone, drums and bass jam. This song is short, sweet and acts as the perfect preparation for the next track.
"Underwater," This title track begins with a funky smooth bass line which gives birth to poignant snare rim-tapping by the percussionist. This prolonged build-up allows gentle guitar licks to ring out in anticipation of the meat of the song. Noodling/strumming guitar riffs act as a bridge to the crescendo which begins at 1:30. Things get serious as I delve deeper into the song. Syncopated beats co-mingle with the rest of the instruments to form a vehicle of sound, fully operational and operating at peak performance like a well oiled machine. Jazzy/funky instrumental math rock is what Elephant Gym is known for and that's precisely what they deliver here. "Satellite" is by far one of the stand-out tracks on this album. In a hazy dream-like state, the song begins with a delightfully twinkly romp in the meadow via keyboard. With a smooth bass line, the song quickly expands - bringing a curiously intricate drum-line complete with more snare rim tapping, a technique often utilized in math rock during the quiet sections. An unexpected blast of minor keys and broken rhythms shout out periodically throughout this story, but you should expect the unexpected in math rock so don't be too surprised!
"Half Sleep" is hands down the best song title I have ever heard. A band that I like very much and used to hold in high regard is called Halfsleep. This jam is a somber one. A break in the rhythm appears shortly before the end. This song is short, sweet and acts as an intermission.
"Bad Dream" is a sleek jam, with rapping featuring Sowut. His particular brand of rap is not my cup of tea, however he does possess talent and potential. The quiet classical piano lines bring some depth to this track. This is my least favorite song on the album but it is catchy! This song grows on me as it goes on, for sure. Hopefully if Elephant Gym continues to experiment with rap or hip-hop they can get a grimey rap artist on board and have trap beats instead of regular professional drumming, but that's just my take on it.
"Half." This proggy piano jam reminds me that Elephant Gym is a multi-faceted force to be reckoned with in regards to their place among other great math rock or progressive acts. The piano lines absolutely rip and shatter any idea you had that Elephant Gym was boring or predictable. This jam reminds me a lot of one of my favorite local bands Jorge Arana Trio. Shell (feat. Cudjiy Ija karivuwan) This song has traditional Asian folk music vibes, the vocals sound similar to throat singing. "Quilt (feat. Kento Nagatsuka)" is a song I can easily see being played on any R&B radio station. Its calm demeanor, lounge vocals and smooth jazz vibes instantly put me in a relaxed mood..
With all of the recent math rock bands experimenting with hip-hop, future bass, rap and trap beats, this endeavor by Elephant Gym was inevitable. Bands like Yufi64, Waxamilion & Polyphia are seemingly at the forefront of this new wave of mixing popular music with math rock and making it more accessible to the world, while at the same time potentially alienating older math rock fans simultaneously.
Overall, this album is good and I am still listening to it 3-4 times a week since its release on November 14th 2018. I give Underwater a solid 4/5 rating. It would be higher if there were less filler tracks and more of the killer jazzy funk math rock sounds Elephant Gym is most commonly known for. The experimentation on this album is welcomed and is something that a lot of bands gravitate towards. I do however think that Chon pulled off the hip-hop blending aspect of their record with more tact, even still I know I'll be listening to Underwater for quite some time! - Matthew Chan