Out of the Fierce Parade, the 2001 debut from Santa Rosa, California-based trio The Velvet Teen, was remarkably proficient, justifiably comparable to first releases from Rufus Wainwright or Jeff Buckley. The album was uplifting, haunting, and intricate-but-accessible alt-rock that belied the group's lack of standing in the rock arena. Between the searing falsetto heights of singer Judah Nagler's voice and the rock-solid rhythm section of bassist Josh Staples and drummer Logan Whitehurst, Fierce Parade seemed to be the opening volley in an inevitably legendary career.
The band have now released their second album on Slowdance Records. To say nothing of whether it succeeds or fails, the 46-minute Elysium efficiently confounds expectations. For starters, there is no guitar on the disc. Eschewed in exchange for stately piano keys, this move alone shows that the band have set out on a different path. Gone as well are the radio-friendly hooks of songs like "Radiapathy" and "The Prize Fighter" from Fierce Parade. In lieu of standard rock elements like these are decidedly non-traditional song structures, the soaring vocals one expects from any Velvet Teen release, and an intricacy that suggests its genesis came from maniacally dedicated musician-masterminds.
Elysium was originally conceived as an EP, a stopgap between full-length releases. While the band was at work on its construction, the songs took off of their own accord to become an LP that bulges under its own heft. Owing to the circumstances of its progeniture, listeners don't seem to be a key component of the equation used to create Elysium. Instead, TVT seems to hope that we'll sit back and listen to the trio work some magic.
And it's a strange sort of magic that's created on this album. After a three-minute intro that swings from electronic clicks and buzzes to swooping strings, the album's name starts to make sense. In addition to the realm the Greeks believed the blessed inhabit after death, Elysium also means an often fictitious or mythical place of pure happiness. The album opens with the gauzy "Penicillin", a deceptively sweet-sounding song about divorce and depression. By the time the following track, "A Captive Audience", has expanded on the breakup by drowning its unfaithful friends in swells of strings, one might realize this isn't the cheeriest album on the shelves.
"Chimera Obscurant", a 13-minute epic avalanche of musical complexity, is arguably the core of Elysium. After two verses flush with paranoia, Nagler turns a simple piano vamp into a breathless five-minute logorrheic sermon. In the course of his often-thrilling musical rant, Nagler references everything from critiques of capitalism and organized religion to cell biology to a Radiohead song to government conspiracies to sacred biblical geometry, all in a polysyllabic onslaught of Brobdingnagian proportions.
Is it for me or anyone else to say if this album is brilliant or insane? Simply put, it's less catchy, less listener-friendly than their previous work. But there's an obvious and stunning amount of care that's gone into the creation of Elysium. Nagler sprinkles some catchy lyrical imagery throughout the album like so much holy water, but more often than not his clever word choice and phrasing obfuscate more than they reveal. Anyone care to make sense of a couplet like this from "Chimera Obscurant": "From the cathepsin to the cathexis / I'll bear the stigmatic focus of the anticatechist"?
In the final tally, Elysium feels like an album born out of catharsis. Understandable, especially from a band that's been playing songs from the same small stable for more than three years. One gets the sense while listening that the band was so overjoyed to have free rein over new material that it became an all-encompassing project. While the album may not land the group on the pop charts or in heavy rotation on the airwaves, Elysium is an album for album-lovers, for people who like to dig deep for meanings that may not ever coalesce or search for a happy place where it's least likely to be found.