Elephants of Scotland - Execute and Breathe as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothExecute and Breathe is a great sophomore release from a band who never stray from a songwriting mantra. Elephants of Scotland write prog with hooks and flavors: songs with loose thematic connections that can stand alone while still contributing to the whole.

Execute and Breathe
Artist: Elephants of Scotland
Label: independent
Time: 8 tracks / 48:00 minutes

Though Elephants of Scotland's Execute and Breathe is a fast-paced, rock-oriented album, I have to admit that it took a little while to grow on me – much the same way their first album did. Cryptic lyrics and strong musicianship sometimes have an initial alienating effect, and this is the type of music that definitely ruminates with subsequent listens. Each time I've listened through Execute and Breathe, I've found more intricacies to appreciate.

EoS are a progressive rock band from Burlington, Vermont, comprised of Dan MacDonald (bass, vocals); Ornan McLean (drums); Adam Rabin (vocals, keyboards) who also recorded, produced and mastered both EoS albums himself; and John Whyte (guitars, vocals). Since 2011, the band has released two studio albums: Home Away From Home in January of 2013, and now Execute and Breathe, officially released today (no, not an April Fool's joke). EoS cite a number of bands as influential – namely Rush, Porcupine Tree, and the Foo Fighters – and perhaps a combination of these three acts is the best way to describe their overall sound: singable, fast-paced, rock tunes that are mostly bass-driven, often with ambient breakdowns, each with dutifully unique qualities.

Introduced by a quick strings/woodwinds patch on the keys, "A Different Machine" kicks off Execute with a driving bass line, adopted immediately by John on the guitar and conjoined with Adam's synth. This main riff reminds me strongly of Iron Maiden and Rush – galloping motion, popping bass, tense time-keeping on the high-hats and snare. "Pray to no god, just commandments on a screen," Dan sings, lamenting the loss of belief to functionality, as the rapid cant breaks to half-time for the first chorus, only to resume the frenetic pace as he concludes: "Once, I was a man, but now I'm just a different machine." John and Adam trade solos on guitar and synth around the 3-minute mark, just before the ethereal breakdown of chimes and restless high-hats. I love the way the bass and vocals move in unison through this segment: the bass presents a new melody and maintains it as the singing returns, moving overtop swirling synth and cyclical guitar riffs. Driving bass, accompanied by Ornan favoring the toms and ride, conclude this song powerfully, leaving the album revving in overdrive before abruptly changing gears.

"The Other Room" gives us our first listen to Adam at lead vocals. The track begins with a warbling guitar effect, panned hard to left and right and echoed by augmented bass stabs. This is a funky little track that slinks overtop a bed of synth before the drums kick into a steady beat. The first chorus transitions from the loose, sultry feel of the verses into a rapid 4/4, a tempo that will maintain for the duration of the track. One thing in particular that I like about EoS is that they never repeat a verse or a chorus the same way twice; something is different each time, be it in lyrics or instrumentation. The second verse of "The Other Room" has an economic but aggressive bass line as John's guitar assumes bigger and bigger chords, scaling up and down the guitar's neck until the song's conclusion.

"Amber Waves" is a ballad, beginning with reflective piano and chimes. This is the song of a tortured soul – a goddess of sorts, transcending humanity with her ability to shed her demons and take flight. 12-string, double-tracked acoustic guitar takes the helm halfway through this 8-minute track, undergirded by drums and bass stabs on 1st and 2nd beats. "And the river flows on," the band sings behind Adam's lead vocals, characterizing the personality of Amber as the life of that river, an unkempt and boundless personality full of life and unerring purpose. In that regard, the song reminds me strongly of Don Henley's "Goodbye to a River," a song with an ecological mission against damming projects, due to his claim that man constructs "lakes and levees, dams and locks" to "put that river in a box / when it was running wild, but man must have control." The supernatural woman of "Amber Waves" – characterized so strongly as a moving body of water – is now escaping the "world that enslaved her," waving goodbye in a final act of separation. Forgive the rabbit trail, but I love the tragic imagery of shackled freedom that went into each of these compositions, and the way one personifies the river while the other compares such a vivacious personality to a body of water. The chorus repeats several times before the conclusion, accompanied by a big guitar riff and Dan's busy work on the bass, before the acoustic guitar returns to usher out the final chorus – the moment of Amber's final escape from the "body that enslaved her."

Though it begins with enigmatic synth, guitar, and bass rumbles, "TFAY" (To Forget About You) almost immediately gives way to a rousing snare roll, soaring octaves on the guitar, and thick bass stabs. Overall, this high energy track could be a b-side off of Rush's Caress of Steel. John's vocals (this is the first time we hear him take the lead vocal role on the album) and the rapid cant of bass and drums are very much inspired by Geddy Lee. Lingering power chords and chorus-drenched riffs from John's guitars hang above the driving bass and chiming ride cymbal. The following may be my favorite lyrical passage on the album: "Are we only devils with mocking laughter, pulling the feathers from our wings? / Or are we half-mad angels in the rafters, banging our heads to hear our halos ring?" In either state of being, this self-reflective view of humanity is an honest evaluation of a neglected, supernatural purpose. "TFAY" isn't the shortest track on the album at just over 5 minutes, but it feels like a whirlwind.

On "Boxless," John showcases a sitar effect, ironically boxing in the track at introduction and conclusion with the same warbling riff. Hand percussion and chimes, moving overtop droning whole notes in the bass, render both introduction and outro mysterious ordeals. Adam's vocals pick up the melody introduced by the guitar, and the song upscales in tempo at the first chorus. The repeated refrain, "Restless in this peace / Thoughtless of myself / Timeless moments cease / Boxless, just as well," speaks of the boundaries of routine, of the need for motion and dynamic change – which this song certainly undergoes throughout its 4+ minute duration. Thematically, "Boxless" feels directly connected to "A Different Machine" – and to the album as a whole for that matter – in the sense that transformation requires freedom, not assimilation. The idea is that creativity and individuality are a unified pursuit, and they must stretch their wings in open space or languish in the dark. This theme unfolds beautifully throughout Execute and Breathe.

"Endless (Pt. I)" and "Endless (Pt. II)," combined with the concluding track, "Mousetrap," are my favorite segment of the album. Part I of "Endless" is an instrumental in 5/4, a nice change from the more standard time signatures which have dominated the album to this point. Dan holds a droning pedaltone on the bass for large chunks of this track, while eerie synth and a watery guitar riff – strongly reminiscent of "Tom Sawyer" – move in tandem overtop. The syncopated unison segment building to the track's vibrant conclusion makes great use of meter changes and unleashes an escalating guitar lick that climaxes with big chords and tight chops. Part I comes to a dead stop before Part II is entranced by acoustic guitar, creating enough of a gap between the two tracks that it makes sense to chop them into halves (as opposed to combining them into one 11-minute epic). Dan reprises his vocal role here, singing movingly of the "new life inside my dream," in which the "diamond wheel reminds me that souls grind down so bright / And each fading spark is learning how to fly." This suffering-breeds-patience sentiment feels distinctly at home on an album that has so much to do with belief, endurance, and independence. At the 2:30 minute mark, a phased drumroll introduces the meat of the song, ushering in the double-timed ride that will briefly transition from 4/4 to 7/8. Adam on the synth trades solos with John on the guitar before a soft breakdown, interrupted by bass and drums stabbing in unison. Part II comes out of this instrumental section with brief passages in 5/4, recalling Part I, before the final chorus. The gentle, melodic keys outro is a great conclusion to this track – a return to the reflective sentiment with which it began.

"Mousetrap" concludes Execute and Breathe in a big way. John takes the helm as lead vocalist once again. Monster chords and riffs, together with tight vocal harmonies and drumrolls, render this track very metal. The heavy toms on the second verse resonate beneath the sustained guitar chords; the trilling high-hat and snare beneath tense grunge chords on the third verse make for an overall dynamic shift. The addition of string patches halfway through also render "Mousetrap" almost symphonic at times, combining a full spectrum of dynamic and instrumental changes to make this a big, 7-minute prog track. A harp patch, overlaid with synth, brings the song to another instrumental passage before the final vocal section. Sharp chords and thunderous drum rolls give way to jangly guitar and synth that fade as the track winds to a close. "Mousetrap" may very well be my favorite song on the album, but the final 18 minutes of Execute feature enough quality writing to make it difficult to choose one track as the standalone highlight.

In sum, Execute and Breathe is a great sophomore release from a band who never stray from a songwriting mantra. They write prog with hooks and flavors, songs with loose thematic connections that can stand alone while still contributing to the whole. This is a solid album that will grow on you with subsequent listens. It's live on their bandcamp site today.

Justin Carlton

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