Album review: ELIAS - 1977 (2020)
Elias is the solo (and sometimes not so solo) musical project of Melbourne-based multi-instrumentalist Carl Belle, who describes himself as a full-time physics nerd and part-time musician. In the very early noughties he wrote for and played in a pop/rock band, aiming to get signed to a label. By 2003, dissatisfied with the nature of that particular genre, he began writing music more closely based on his preferred forms, having been raised on classical music and progressive rock, and dubbed it 'soundtrack rock'. He formed a band with other accomplished musicians and played a few gigs and began recording using Pro Tools, but had a series of setbacks with software incompatibilities. By 2009 music had taken a back seat, precipitated by frustration and personal upheaval, and Belle decided to move from Sydney to Melbourne and get into motorcycling.
Fast forward to 2014 and a good friend of Belle asked him if he'd play at his wedding. He agreed, but found it a bit of a struggle having not played guitar for a number of years. However, it proved to be the catalyst to realising the album begun in 2003, getting back into the idea of playing, then officially coming out of guitar retirement in 2016 to take on the role of Steve Lukather in a Toto cover band, and finally deciding to try and finish off the album which was sitting on an old hard drive, a process once more frustrated by hardware upgrades and software fiddling. A lot of the bass tracks were re-recorded using a newly-acquired Fender Jaco fretless bass, 8-string Strandberg guitar tracks were also added and finally, in August 2020, the album was ready.
The album title relates to Belle’s year of birth. Apart from being the year Yes released Going for the One, an album Belle thinks is ‘fantastic’ and which boasts, in his opinion, the definitive progressive rock track in Parallels, he references some of these interesting events that happened that year in a short introductory video to the album https://youtu.be/iHoytDwXuJ0. This promotional aid also includes segments that relate to his fear of flying, something he recognises as being irrational. This in turn links to the album artwork, the iconic Rockwell B1 Lancer variable geometry heavy bomber, a product of the era, represented as a pastiche of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man.
1977 is entirely instrumental. It’s well-written and Belle plays everything apart from a Rhodes electric piano solo on Tau which was provided by Michael Kennett. It’s hard to believe the music dates from 2003, because it comes across as fresh and vibrant with a vast array of sounds and styles. Linked by short snatches of musique concrete, no two songs are the same, though they do share an attention to detail which helps to convey Belle’s ideas, lending a cohesive feel to the album.
His aerophobia is examined on Making up Time in the Air, a musing on international air travel and how pilots appear to make up time in the air. He asks: Do they know a short cut? The cinematic opening segues into prog metal riffing and layered guitars with the noise of aircraft engines powering up. An abrupt change back to post-rock introduces a build-up of tension and intensity and we’re back into the heavy riffing. It’s a well-structured piece and at over 11 minutes, it’s the longest track on the album.
Belle describes Brake Foot as being inspired by the traffic in Indonesia. There’s lots of bright guitar and the bass is quite prominent. We’re shown some guitar fireworks, with short, fast runs, but they’re used sparingly. I think the un-flashy but complex motifs make the track more special.
An example of Belle’s 2003 soundtrack rock, I Can’t Believe That Fitted begins with Mellotron patches and owes inspiration to the track In the Court of the Crimson King. A laid-back groove develops that could form the soundtrack to the sun going down on St Kilda beach, when you might ruminate on the meaning of an old corporate proverb.
Lesson in Noise is another track with intelligent development. The opening is gentle and melodic, utilising some novel sounds. A short section with Mellotron flute presages a heavier passage which builds in intensity before changes to riff and tone and the introduction of a shredding lead. The final section is reminiscent of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic part 2.
Tau begins and ends with a glass harmonica keyboard patch and features a hefty dose of haunting flute Mellotron. There’s prominent, funky bass with chopped guitar and that jazzy Rhodes solo played by Michael Kennett. An added jazz flavour is provided by a keyboard solo using a trumpet patch.
When Belle describes The Karaoke Song as ‘Jackie Chan is chased through busy Hong Kong streets by the Triads before losing them by seeking refuge at a Frank Zappa concert just as the band starts playing Andy’, he provides a depiction that isn’t far from the way I hear the track. I get more of a Celtic feel to the fast runs, and after a little bit of organ and heavy guitar there’s a sudden break followed by hurried footsteps backed by ambient street sounds. The Celtic-like keyboard riff is reintroduced following a brief shred, demonstrating some considerable skill, and then we get to the Zappa-like section!
If I have one criticism of the album it’s the drum sound, though this may be just personal preference. Karaoke Song begins with a short drum intro which sounds fine, but the tom-tom sounds, not all the time but mainly over the heavy, distorted guitar, come over as a little flat and dull. That’s a minor gripe and isn’t intended to detract from what is quite a remarkable piece of work when you think that it took 17 years to get released. Belle’s command of multiple instruments, his approach to song structure, and most of all his perseverance are to be applauded.
I can only hope the follow-up doesn’t take quite so long.
The album can be bought here: https://eliasmusic.bandcamp.com/
Making up Time in the Air https://youtu.be/LqLcoChPu60
Brake Foot https://youtu.be/OYcCBpI2Flc