Album review: Elkhorn – On The Whole Universe In All Directions

Words by Grey Malkin

Elkhorn (Jesse Sheppard and Drew Gardener) have previously blown minds and gathered devotion with a series of staggeringly inventive and deeply immersive releases, from the adventurous psych folk of 2019’s ‘Sun Cycle/Elk Jam’, to the wind-torn improvisations of ‘Storm Sessions’ (literally recorded whilst holed up during a winter ice blast), to last year’s propulsive and percussive ‘Distances’, which introduced and added two drummers to their foundational palette of 12-string acoustic and electric guitars. Indeed, with each album, Elkhorn have not only expanded their sonic remit, but also acquired new band members or fellow travellers who have sympathetically adorned or embellished their work – as well as furthered the opportunity to explore new musical forms, both practically and stylistically. Interestingly, with ‘On The Whole Universe In All Directions’ (the title comes from the work of 13th century Japanese Soto Zen poet Dōgen), we are returned to the core duo of Sheppard and Gardner working alone, and we also experience a further stripping back in that Gardener’s distinctive electric guitar playing is not to be heard on this recording.

This does not however mean that the duo are taking a backwards step in any sense, or have ceased their journeying into new, creative and expansive realms of sound. Instead, Gardener helms both vibraphone and drums/percussion to add yet another aural dimension to Elkhorn’s exploratory journeys; this is a band who do not rest or settle on laurels (and they could and still be entirely satisfying), but instead shake things up or push further out with each new utterance. In some ways this step is perhaps a natural progression; Gardener hails from a jazz background, having worked with both John Tchicai and Wadada Leo Smith in San Francisco in the 90s, and this direction adds a further sense of freeform and lack of conventional constraint to Elkhorn’s wide psychedelic visions. The result is that ‘On The Whole Universe In All Directions’ sounds recognisably  Elkhorn, but also not like other Elkhorn releases; and this is their gift, an unpredictability and a searching, questing for new ground and new fertile possibilities.

‘North’ opens the album, commencing with mantra like shards of Sheppard’s 12-string, evoking the ghost of Popol Vuh at their most sacred, before being joined by Gardener’s vibraphone, its chimes reverberating and cascading like snowfall around the guitar and the accompanying drumrolls and percussion. Freeform, yet tightly controlled and focused, the piece builds and expands in waves into something truly cosmiche and expressive, a voyage into the dark night sky amongst the pinhole stars. With echoes of Saucerfulera Floyd in the tumbling drums and sense of vastness, as well as hues of the most interplanetary of Alice Coltrane’s output, there is an edge to this work, a tumultuous sense of being in the heart of the storm; a still epicentre within a raging whole. 

‘South’ is a calmer beast, more rapturous with its shimmering cymbal splashes and gently strident guitar, the vibraphone now reminiscent of hazy, warm lights, both guiding and reassuring. Sheppard’s guitar holds the structure here, pinning down a widescreen vista that the other instrumentation can then run free upon. Almost meditative in certain parts, and alternately dynamic and thrilling in others, this piece could ably soundtrack a long night journey into the endless desert, into the mountains. As the track develops there is a sudden increase in intensity as vibraphone notes multiply and waterfall all around, which is then followed by a sense of breathing out and the slowing of pace, the guitar returning to a more prominent position as the song settles and sighs, like some living creature.

‘East’ sits upon a ragga guitar motif, holding tension as drums build and fall, the vibraphone now eerie and laced with foreboding, evoking a sense of ceremony or ritual. Indeed, there is an air of the spiritual (as there can be with Elkhorn, their music is often imbued with an undertow of something magical, or otherworldly), as the piece repeatedly peaks and recedes, both hypnotic and transportive. ‘West’ by turn is more contemplative, though still glistening and with moments of genuine beauty, like awakening to the gentle morning light after a long, dark slumber. It is both transcendent and uplifting, and yet also contains an equally earthy and grounded beauty. This quality (which can be said of the album as a whole) suggests that Elkhorn could provide the perfect soundtrack to any future Werner Herzog film or documentary, indeed there is a hint here of the more sunlit moments from the afore mentioned Popol Vuh’s ‘Brüder des Schattens – Söhne des Lichts‘. Very possibly the album highlight, ‘West‘ is arguably the most obvious meeting point of the Elkhorn who have come before, and this current incarnation. 

Another triumph then, and a beacon to those who still believe that music can be an illuminative, emotionally resonant and connective force, ‘On The Whole Universe In All Directions’ treats its listeners as adults, and takes us down untrodden and undiscovered paths. Elkhorn are determinedly creative and unafraid of following their intuition, free from convention or restriction. Instead, they are a breath of musical fresh air, and this listener, for one, cannot wait to hear what they do next.

‘On The Whole Universe In All Directions’ is available from March 24th from Centripetal Force in the US and Cardinal Fuzz in the UK/Europe on vinyl, limited CD and download.


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