Chris Higdon, the front man for Elliott, and Benny Clark, the lead guitarist, tell me that they are never quite sure what will happen when their band takes the stage. In contrast, their openers for this tour, MAE, are "on" every night. So many of their opening bands have gone on to hit it big, they say, that they don't really expect anything anymore. At that point, Kevin Ratterman, the drummer, comes backstage and mentions that the grown-up industry types in the audience have freaked MAE a bit, and they aren't quite so composed as normal. "Will that knowledge phase Elliott?" I ask, and they laugh. "If we played our best every night, we'd have made it by now, but maybe we'd also have had to dye our hair black and wear Diesel jeans," says Higdon. Clark tells me that Elliott in concert are either very, very good, or not so great at all. His further confession that he is quite drunk makes me wonder what kind of night they're going to have. Tonight's Knitting Factory show in lower Manhattan follows the release of Elliot's third full-length album, Song in the Air (Revelation Records). Anyone familiar with Elliott's work will know that they have been lauded for their "intense" stage presence and that they are compared most often with Radiohead and Sigur Rós. Singer and lyricist Higdon, the only one left standing from the 1996 Elliott debut, has completely reconstructed the band; Song marks the first recording with Benny Clark on guitar, Kevin Ratterman drumming and Jason Skaggs playing bass. The new album reverberates melancholically enough to exude emo-tivity, though Elliott's beginnings are more hardcore, and their music seems to defiantly veer from one phase to another a bit more than some of dyed-in-the-wool cap fans might like. The audience exemplifies the "emo" cliche -- many young men with glasses -- though with rather more young women in glasses than usual, and, of course, those notorious record company people. I spend the down time between bands attempting to identify the professionals and wondering how the dense orchestration and epic quality of Song in the Air will translate into a live performance. It doesn't take long for the suspense to abate. Higdon removes his glasses and almost seems in a trance; his pale face and shaved head upturned towards the lights and his ethereal falsetto floating above us as he sings the CD's title cut: "Don't send me away. Come with song in the air. Bring your life and your love. Show that sparkles last. Drag on. Away. Maybe you're the same. Without me." Clark emanates with a similar intensity, but his maniacal pulse contributes excitement that might otherwise be lacking. Without Clark and Ratterman's steadfast, but eccentric drumming, it seems as if their lead singer would be floating up off the stage like Charlie and his grandfather in the Chocolate Factory. Before they've gone too far in the set, the entire band seems to have reached some kind of transcendent state. The audience is wrapped up into it too, so you don't know when one song ends and the next begins. It's not really a matter of one song following another, though, but rather the experience of Elliott that makes you wrap yourself in inside yourself and become suspended in another place. Maybe you'll sway a bit back and forth, but there isn't going to be moshing, and not even much foot tapping; even the clapping between songs has a dazed feeling to it, as if everyone has been paralyzed by the experience. Emerging onto the rainslickened streets, I hear one man complain to a friend that the band lost momentum during the set, but I decide he was just showing off his critical skills rather than his listening discernment. "Pompous jerk," I mutter.