Elf Power
Photo: Jason Thrasher / Courtesy of the Missing Piece Group

Back to Earth on Elf Power’s ‘Artificial Countrysides’

On Artificial Countrysides, Elf Power ground cosmic apocalypse and global destruction into fever dreams from their own backyard.

Artificial Countrysides
Elf Power
Yep Roc
15 July 2022

What’s it feel like to be a cult indie-pop band releasing their umpteenth album and approaching the end of their third decade? Loyal fans will mostly complain if you try anything different than your early successes; critics will mostly complain if you don’t. Sure, as a song on Elf Power’s previous album put it in 2017, there must sometimes be a feeling of “cycling aimlessly through minutes, days, and hours”. Still, making music doesn’t seem like such a bad way to pass the years out at Orange Twin Conservation Community, their self-sustaining “pedestrian-based eco-village” nestled within a 150-acre nature preserve. Located five miles from Athens, Georgia, supported by the sale of music and merchandise related to the artists it supports, Orange Twin includes an open-air performance space in the woods, and, judging from the lo-fi videos produced for Artificial Countrysides, also makes an irresistible setting for home movies and time-honored camera tricks. More than any other Elf Power recording, Artificial Countrysides leans into the less often mentioned reference of their name: the Earth Liberation Front.

One of the few bands still active from the legendary Elephant 6 collective, Elf Power have always mixed fuzzed-out off-the-grid living and a wide-ranging pop music palette. Artificial Countrysides, their first release through established North Carolina-based indie label Yep Roc, addresses this combination thematically as well. According to the label’s web page, “artificial countrysides describe the gray zones where the natural world collides with the creeping encroachment of the digital realm, where the balance between real and simulated can shift from one minute to the next”. Judging from these 12 songs, those grey zones injected frontman Andrew Rieger and his three current collaborators with more consistent energy than was evident on their last few records.

The album’s opener and lead single, “Undigested Parts”, chugs along with the psych-pop riffs and infectious hooks of the classic years around the turn of the 21st century, complete with a video featuring a goofy cameo from a hooded Robert Schneider of fellow Elephant 6ers the Apples in Stereo.

The lyrics of “Undigested Parts” are evocative and disturbing in the best surrealist tradition. The grisly physical image of the food in your mouth you can’t find a way to swallow blends in the lyrics with what sticks in the craw of childhood memory and what society makes but can’t renew. A similar image in the title song’s “artificial countrysides that never rot and don’t decay” extends the idea directly into our late capitalist world, “growing faster all the time, spreading further every day”. The eerily compelling fantasy worlds and often creepy natural environments that dwell within the lyrics of the classic albums have transformed into a jaundiced look at the world outside Orange Twin. As a result, what typically feel in Elf Power songs like hallucinatory inner landscapes instead shimmer the phantasmagorical world-out-of-kilter we all inhabit. The only drugs in sight are the “shadows forming into vials on the ground” of “Undigested Parts”.

For the first time in several albums, the Elves sound like they’re dreaming more than sleepwalking. Recording at home and producer/engineer Jesse Mangum’s Glow Recording Studio in Athens, the quartet of Rieger, drummer Peter Alvanos, longtime guitarist Dave Wrathgabar, and, on a few tracks, keyboard player Laura Carter, has crafted a tight set. There’s much less of the drum machine that dominated 2013’s Sunlight on the Moon, replaced by Alvanos’s live, loud sticks. Where the high points of 2017’s Twitching in Time tended to be instrumental breaks like the guitar distortion that bursts into the space of Carter’s solo piano in “Watery Shreds” or the relatively extended outros of “Ten Dollars on the Ground”, “In a Room”, “Too Many Things in My Hands”, and the title song, the best songs on Artificial Countrysides work from start to finish, the total more than the sum of the parts.

Artificial Countrysides’ first side leans heavily into the title, even as environmental degradation is imagined in consistently somatic reminders that our bodies and minds are embedded in the world they’re in the process of destroying. I can’t tell you exactly what “The Gas Inside the Tank” is about, but I know that the metaphor moves from the inorganic to the body: “steadily siphoning the gas inside the tank” describes either—or more likely both—the ingestion of the outside world and the siphoning in of information into a brain primed to need ever more electronic stimuli. “Clean Clothes” encapsulates this effect in its oxymoronic chorus, “And clean clothes are worn inside your filthy brain.” “Soft Trash” affects a sly update of the name of one of the Elves’ favorite bands. “Trash” is what becomes of machines when they’re no longer productive or functioning. But in both cases, “soft” also upends the typical association in opaque but unmistakably organic ways. As in the original coining by experimental novelist William S. Burroughs, a “soft machine” is a body understood in novel ways, rather than a “hard machine” understood in predictable ones, like the adding machines that had produced the Burroughs family fortune.

Catchy mid-tempo melodies and quirky flourishes carry the more contemplative feel of many of these songs. With lyrics conjuring a fractured world of old, violent movies, a bass hook, and a mysterious urgency, side one closer, “Filming the Sequel Before the Actors Die”, plays like a stoned-slow remake of “Watching the Detectives”, the side one closer of the US release of Elvis Costello’s debut album. But where Costello’s original honed closely to the single genre of film noir, “Filming the Sequel” ranges associatively through a sci-fi/horror dreamscape that leaves us unsure whether we’re trapped within a victim’s body or behind the joystick driving video game mayhem, or soaring uncontrollably “across the universe.” It’s as urgent as “Watching the Detectives”, but there’s no longer any distance between onscreen and off.

The ominous title of “Filming the Sequel before the Actors Die” leads into an apocalyptic second side. Naturally, it’s an ambiguous apocalypse. “Then it all gets washed away by another storm,” runs the chorus of “Metal House”. The destruction is simultaneously cosmic and intensely personal, as in “Dark Rays”: “Dark rays, black holes, hovering close by / Blocked out the sun and crushed your bones and brains / It slowly grinds.” It’s visceral but also hallucinatory, as in the lyrics of “Floods”, which manage to blend the catastrophic rains of the climate crisis with bedwetting, accompanied by a strange sense of something not entirely end-of-days after all: “Floods pouring out from the edges of the dream landscape / Wetting the minds of the good friends and complete strangers / Opposing forces have now become the same / And the slow emancipation drags the hours into days.”

Where the album’s first side documents “artificial countrysides” in the landscape and the mind, the second side imagines the end to which those landscapes lead. “The remnants regroup to assume another form,” continues “Metal House”. “Living in the metal house struck by lightning every day / Ignored the warnings and you decided to stay.” Depending on the perspective, cosmic apocalypse can occur on as small-scale as the home remedy for ants in the garden in the slow-burning “Pouring Hot Water on the Anthills”: “Pouring hot water on the anthills all the time / Finding a way that you can rationalize the crime.” Even as he rages, Rieger equally philosophizes; the crime against nature is incorporated into a natural cycle: “New things emerging as the others are replaced.”

If “Pouring Hot Water” reduces global catastrophe to a backyard massacre, the majestic acoustic closer “Constantly Touching” summons all the album’s imagery into that same backyard in the simple process of farm-to-table. “Opened the ground up and pulled out what grew,” it begins, with something played by Wrathgabar shimmering in the background. “Mixed the ingredients then licked the spoon / Ate in the dark till the light crept in through / Constantly touching from the flower to the roots / No separating from the ever-binding glue.” But Rieger means more than just back to nature, and the process continues: “We seal off the trash and then throw it away / Constantly touching everything that passes by / Making new spaces in your body and your mind.” The indeterminacy of Wrathgabar’s software mellotron seems fitting for an album that aims to “constantly touching everything”.

Elf Power have never shied away from the undigested parts of their psychedelic vision, but neither have they ever simply wallowed in its darkness. The arrangements find a balance they haven’t always found. It may not always click—“Clean Clothes” and “Did It Really Exist?” in particular don’t ever really take off. But mostly it does, especially in the gloriously rocking fuzz-guitar of “Undigested Parts”, the loping bass of “Filming the Sequel”, or the liquid guitar break that extends “Pouring Hot Water” to the final chorus. Then there’s the less expected: the elegiac “Dark Rays” boasts pristine piano and acoustic guitar solos backed by soaring Mellotron. “Constantly Touching” features Rieger vocals that are uncharacteristically as plaintive and sonorous as the equally uncharacteristic acoustic guitar. These are neat and welcome touches on a surprisingly balanced outing from a band that seems in no hurry at all to call it a day.

RATING 7 / 10