With any debut album there's high expectations. When your previous work has been praised by numerous high-profile publications both online and print, those expectations skyrocket. Transitions somehow manages to exceed them.
Elephant & Castle is a one man army who's got some powerful allies. Operating under that moniker David Reep has built a surprisingly successful name for himself. Of course, upon close inspection his early success isn't a surprise. He operates in a field of music that's become increasingly self-reliant, stale, and blatantly repetitive. When something like Elephant & Castles comes along, people take notice. This is thrilling new music pushing the boundaries further and further into the realms of inventiveness and originality. It makes for something that's simultaneously spectacular and bold. One can get the sense this is the representation of Reep as a whole. He's putting himself out there with Transitions and everyone's the better for it. This is daring material of the highest caliber, both difficult and accessible in equal measure it may be one of the most important albums of the year.
Opening with "Adjoining Souls", it's immediately apparent that there's something different happening here as a warm analog haze drifts over a variety of instruments to create an aural dream-scape that becomes adorned with vocal swirls. Harsh blasts of buzz-saw noises come in for short interruptions adding an extra set of teeth to an already ominous song. Like a particularly vivid nightmare, it holds its audience captive. Once completely immersed, Transitions transitions seamlessly to "Rise". "Rise" continues the dark undertow in atmospherics but offers one of the albums only missteps with the inclusion of a slap bass. While it certainly adds curiosity and morphs the song into a fascinating oddity via its existence, it just feels out of place. Yet, as the song progresses and the bass playing settles into something more standard, it helps make "Rise" become something resembling the transcendence of the rest of Transitions.
"Derni/Paralysis" is the first true highlight on the record. It's both distinctly electronic and something else entirely. Like a lot of music that could be feasibly labeled as timeless, it sounds as relevant now as it would've a decade ago and it's not difficult to imagine it retaining that relevance a decade into the future. With the sampling of old standards running underneath the current of synths, clicks, and a haunting piano it becomes one of Transitions' defining moments. Not to let himself be undone, Reep follows this with the humorously titled "Altered Scones" offering a fleeting moment of lightness in a darkly mesmerizing record. "Altered Scones" itself only offers a moment of lightness in keyboard organ swirls, otherwise staying true to the standard in mood set by its precedents.
"En Memoria" featuring tUnE-yArDs sees Elephant & Castle continuing down its strange dark-yet-inviting path. It alters between drones and ambient noise and a mid-tempo jaunt heavily influenced in melody by '50s pop records. It's a fascinating combination and it proves to be endlessly listenable which is probably one of the reasons factoring in to NPR's decision to recently name it a "Song of the Day." When it dies out "Oakland Stroll" kicks in and proves to be a dizzying counterpoint to the accessibility of "En Memoria". "Oakland Stroll" is one of the darkest, most adventurous things on Transitions and with it's inimitable time signatures and spliced in saxophone may have a close cousin in free jazz. It's infinitely fascinating and begs to be revisited. Fortunately, the repeat listens don't disappoint, they only draw the listener further into the maddening dissection and consumption.
Transitions' ensuing trio of tracks, "The Hangar", "Formatting...", and "I Will" all offer unique highlights in different respects. More importantly they all play off one another brilliantly and help hold Transitions together as a whole. Of the three "Formatting..." stands out the strongest. Offering one of the albums most unrelentingly sparse, bleak, and unforgiving introductions it becomes the perfect distillation and representation of the kind of dark ambient sound Elephant & Castle has already perfected. When the subsequent folk, hip-hop, and pop influences kick in, for however briefly, it somehow manages to make the underlying ambient drone even darker in contrast. It's brilliant.
Perhaps the weakest track on Transitions is the second to last, "RGB" which plays closest to the standards in the electronic that the rest of Transitions so heavily defies. Granted, on nearly any other notable electronic artists album, this would still sound out of place and adventuresome but compared to the rest of what's on Transitions it just sounds like an exercise in copy and paste and comes off sounding like something that could have easily been tacked onto a single as an obligatory B-Side. It's not without merit but it simply doesn't live up to the standard set by the rest of Transitions. Luckily, there's still a song left afterwards to redeem the album and "Distance to the Sun" proves up to the task. While it may not be Transitions' strongest moment, it's a fitting closer and acts as something sort of akin to a summary in an epilogue. All that's left to do is wait for the next book in the series to come out. If it's anything as audacious, defiant, dark, and riveting as the debut, then it'll be worth purchasing twice.