Album review: Elias - Atlas (2022)
Prog metal / Prog jazz
Elias is the recording name of Carl Belle and back in 2020 I reviewed his album 1977, a release with a 17-year gestation which though worth the wait prompted me to wish that his next album wouldn’t take quite so long to make. And, despite the upheaval of moving from Melbourne to South Australia wine country, the follow-up Atlas is now available as a download and as a physical CD.
While there are obvious similarities between the two releases, Atlas benefits from a host of highly regarded guest musicians including internationally acclaimed artists Dewa Budjana and Derek Sherinan. Belle describes his experience with the collaborators as ‘humbling and amazing’, having employed the principle of ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ to enquire if some of his favourite musicians would agree to be part of the record and carefully matched those who said ‘yes’ to tracks most suited to their style, in an exercise organised through Instagram. Apart from a stellar guest list, the other main difference between 1977 and Atlas is the tendency towards prog jazz.
Opening track Blind Mary features Alex Machacek and Joshua Meader where after a short acoustic opening section there’s a reminder of Belle’s work on 1977 with overlain guitar parts and Mellotron strings before the piece suddenly gets quite jazzy. The electric piano and fluid Allan Holdsworth-like guitar reference Bundles-era Soft Machine or either of the first two Bruford albums but this wasn’t too much of a surprise for me having seen Machacek take on Holdsworth’s role in a 2012 UK reunion.
Atlas, like its predecessor, is an instrumental album, but the second track Drongo includes snippets of spoken word from a cast of Australian villains, politicians and public figures who fall into the climate change denier and anti-vaccination camp: “no one is the suppository of all wisdom” former PM Tony Abbott; advertising executive and Sky presenter Rowan Dean; Paul Murray, another Sky presenter; Queensland Senator Malcolm Roberts; Mark Latham, the former leader of the Labor party when they were in opposition, now a member of the populist right wing One Nation party; and the former MP who lost his seat in elections this year, Craig Kelly, a conspiracy theorist who was banned from Facebook. Drongo also features two guest musicians, Michael Kennett (who helped out with electric piano on 1977) and guitarist Dylan Reavey. The result is more melodic, fluid prog jazz guitar and some great keyboard work that reminds me of Dave Stewart’s work on Bruford albums – in fact the opening bars sound a little like Feels Good to Me.
The title track, while stuffed with variation in tempo and instrumentation, maintains the prog jazz feel but Belle also utilises effective Mellotron string patches and what I can only assume is a nod to his favourite Yes album with a burst of the sound of a church organ, referencing Awaken from Going For The One. The three guests Dewa Budjana, David Soong and Connor Kaminski fit in absolutely seamlessly.
Bletchley Park is probably my favourite track, because it occupies dark prog territory. It’s atmospheric with some heavy organ, excellent bass guitar playing and spritely synthesizer at the end. Belle counts Wes Thrailkill, the guest on Bletchley Park, as being responsible for reigniting his passion for the guitar and music in general when he returned to finish 1977. Having just listened to Thrailkill’s Everything That is You for the first time, I can understand why Belle wanted him to be part of Atlas and I think that it’s possible to discern a similar approach to Thrailkill’s song writing and linking of ideas on both 1977 and this current album.
This Anxiety is a personal song, most closely linked to the theme of the album. Belle explains that in Greek mythology Atlas was condemned to support the heavens for all eternity and compares this task to the Atlas bone, the first of the cervical vertebrae, supporting the skull and brain. Pointing out that the human brain is the most complex object we know of in the entire universe with its exact working not yet fully understood, we’re somewhat in the dark about treatment when there’s a neurochemical problem: “The events of the last few years have compounded the struggle for those of us who battle anxiety and depression. This music explores those topics, and serves as a catharsis for grappling with the machinations of a rewired brain.” The piece itself, featuring guest Derek Sherinan, contains a good number of variations. The early lines are punctuated by clever short breaks, there’s more Mellotron, there are heavy sections and some technical prog metal, there are calm, melodic moments and it even gets celestial.
An Apology to All My Teachers is the shortest track and all instruments are handled by Belle. From slow, laid-back sections and some Rick Wright sounding electric piano to more of the fluid Holdsworth-like guitar, his acquisition and application of the song construction techniques used by Wes Thrailkill becomes increasingly evident and the track ends with Mellotron patches under bubbly keyboards and upbeat jazzy guitar.
Bob Dudeface, where Belle is helped out by Michael Kennett and Amadeo Corbalán, has an amazing proggy intro and then becomes heavier with a prog metal section before effortlessly moving into jazz rock with fast runs and a jazzy piano melody. Belle plays some nice, trebly bass and one of the breaks sounds like something by Steven Wilson.
Chatting to Belle reveals some of his anxieties, all of which I'd regard as well-founded. The Soviet-era threat of nuclear holocaust may have dissipated with the fall of the Berlin Wall but Russia is now threatening Ukraine with its nuclear arsenal; climate change is an existential threat but some of the world leaders really don’t seem to care about unprecedented extremes of rainfall and drought, flooding and forest fires; and then there’s Covid-19 with its pandemic deniers and anti-vaxxers. These worries have all been channelled into a coherent suite of well-written modern prog songs, clearly layered and well-produced, bursting with inventiveness and boasting an inspired roll call of guests. It really is an excellent album.
The remaining question is, am I allowed to take at least some credit for the appearance of the Mellotron patches that appear throughout the album, having stated how much I like the ‘tron during an email exchange to gather information for my review of 1977?!
Copies of Atlas can be ordered from Bandcamp: https://eliasmusic.bandcamp.com/album/atlas
Watch the introductory video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7UYtn9Vkig