Once upon a time, people went to galleries to admire towering frescos, hyper-realistic portraits and landscape paintings so vast and intricate as to almost swallow the viewer up entirely; nowadays they go to look at blank canvases, colored lightbulbs and pickled farmyard animals. Yep, at some point art all got a bit weird. I’ve always thought that if there were to be a musical equivalent of abstract modern art then it would come in the form of eccentric, experimental prog or post-metal – music that requires patience and an open mind to appreciate and digest – and such a description could not be apter for Providence’s Queen Elephantine. Classifying themselves as ‘modal psychedelic doom,’ the formerly Hong Kong-based collective create hypnotic soundscapes with thick, pungent atmospheres, having developed and refined their approach over the course of 10 years and four studio albums, along with a number of EPs and splits to boot. Their latest record Kala was always set to be a challenging listen but had decent potential, and having briefly explored their highly regarded, albeit somewhat under-appreciated, back catalog of work, I was rather looking forward to exploring what their newest offering brought to the table.
In true prog style, Queen Elephantine’s approach to songwriting is typically atypical. With a heavy emphasis on conceptual development as opposed to defined song structure, they utilize a minimalist formula, often taking a lick or hook and then gradually adding to and developing it over many minutes. Kala is not so much a collection of songs as sensory experiences, ranging from the quiet broodiness of opener “Quartered” to the dense, doomy crescendos of “Ox” and “Deep Blue.” They sound rather like what I imagine you’d get if you took A Silver Mt. Zion and Ufomammut and rolled them into one. However, while their meandering, experimental approach has served them well in the past, Kala is a different story altogether.
Unlike its more formidable predecessors, such as Surya and Garland of Skulls, Kala simply feels tepid and directionless, with Queen Elephantine’s enigmatic, rambling style proving, in this case, to be more a source of frustration than satisfaction. The kind of hypnotic atmospheres they were able to conjure up on previous records are largely absent, and the ideas they do attempt to launch rarely evolve into anything interesting. The sensation of disappointment this evokes is somewhat reminiscent of the good old days of Pokémon on the black and white Game Boy, patiently waiting for your Caterpie to turn into something exciting and ferocious, only to be rewarded with a fucking Metapod; sure it’s evolved, but was it really worth the wait? If Kala were a Pokémon then it would almost certainly be a chrysalis with eyes.
A far cry from the sultry bass hooks that came to characterize their earlier material, the low-end now feels stale and forgettable, and the sluggish guitar work sounds as though it was recorded on amps that were left outside in the rain, with a ragged, distorted tone that overpowers the delicate characteristics of what they’re playing. Sure, there’s plenty of depth to the production, but this is little consolation when the main product itself is so uninspiring; rather than saving the record, you can just hear it fail in more detail.
Although relatively unknown, Queen Elephantine have a genuinely impressive discography, with oodles of mesmerizing, psychedelic space rock and slabs of fat, doomy sludge on offer. The formidable quality of their past work however only serves to accentuate what a perplexing disappointment Kala is. There’s always the possibility that with the assistance of fistfuls of potent psychoactive drugs it may morph into something more profound, but in the absence of such chemical lubrication it sounds more like the dribbling offspring of a seedy Godspeed You! Black Emperor/Steak Number Eight love affair, born in a bathtub and dropped on its head shortly thereafter. If you just need some background noise to help you fall asleep at night then Kala may be for you, but if you’re after something actually worth paying attention to, look elsewhere.