As we embark on our journeys, we naturally have to prepare what we shall take with us. Along the way, we leave a few things behind, and return home with things both tangible and intangible: the memories we will forever carry with us. Green Elder’s music reflects what they have returned with on their personal journeys, be it through mystical explorations into the forest or time spent with friends and family. It is deeply reflective and conceptually solid in many ways, speaking from the heart and soul of individuals who remain vulnerable enough to reveal themselves purely to the world. Much like Panopticon—who, considering the other projects associated with Green Elder, I would not doubt is a massive influence—Green Elder’s music is like opening someone’s personal journal and implementing yourself directly into their human experience. The debut album, Ruis, ends with a track called “Going Home”, and it truly sounds as such: returning to a place of familiarity after a long journey. Of course, the next release would appropriately be called, Home.
Green Elder is a modern two-piece folk group who utilize elements of traditional Appalachian, Celtic, and neofolk music. Consisting of the individuals behind Twilight Fauna and Crown of Asteria, who previously worked on an extremely limited split tape on Red River Family that ultimately led to this collaboration, Green Elder have shed their abrasive roots for gentler tunes. As is often the case in comparison with the other bands, this is where their greatest talent lies: in an inversion from what they are normally known for. I have found this stands true for many bands who “go soft” and make the best music of their careers, or have a side-project that is better than the heavier project they are known for. I was first attracted to Green Elder because of the familiar name of the debut release, Ruis, which is both an Ogham (Celtic alphabet, which, like Runes, some believe can be used in divination or for magical purposes) and the name of someone extremely close to me. It instantly gained repeated listens, and it was but a few short months before another album came out.
Unfortunately, this leads to my biggest complaint, for with few exceptions I think quality music comes with time and effort. Overall, I am under the impression that these are songs that were created around a campfire, perhaps worked out while one of the two members was on a woodland pilgrimage, and that night, when the sparks joined the stars, they played these songs for the first time. Many would agree that this is a great scenario for such music, and I would not argue that. A difference does exist though in a couple of friends getting together and playing for others at a local gathering, and someone who is trying to create a fully thought-out album.
In an odd way, this also makes the album about as folk as you can get. Not only is it based around acoustic instrumentation from guitar, banjo, and dulcimer, to flutes and bodhran, it sounds like music played by friends, for friends. I can certainly appreciate this, as it truly reflects Appalachia and its incredibly deep connection with Ireland—two places that are certainly a very personal part of my existence. Ruis is for the folk, by the folk, and this means it does not transfer well to being something that would be appreciated on a global scale. It is both well-performed and humbly amateur; the music doesn’t always flow together well, yet it is sufficient enough to add character. Both of these albums could easily be demo material from which they could choose the best parts and refine everything else. Instead, they have chosen to release one album after another, and if they continue to do so they will likely appease many fans while alienating many others who expect music to be a bit more professional and well-refined. This is a standard case of quantity over quality, although—as I shall try to clarify—the quality can often also ascend to a level that is truly breathtaking.
If the music that Green Elder compose took only minimal effort, as it appears, most of the music contained herein is quite impressive. The acoustic guitar performances are, at times, stunning as they strum along and around vocals that are inaudibly yet hauntingly sung in the background. As an example, the guitar in “The Cold Hearth” sounds like it could be used in a commercial, which only shows how adaptable the music is and how wide its appeal could be for all who enjoy acoustic-based folk music. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned a track called “Going Home,” which has a guitar riff that sounds absurdly familiar on a comfortably nostalgic level. This familiarity continues into the vocals, which are some of the most audible on either album. This could easily be a favorite song, chanted by wanderers and travelers around the country.
By now, you may have caught my hint to the second complaint, but just in case I shall go a bit more in-depth. In songs like “Petrichor,” I cannot even hear the vocals, which with such incredibly well-written lyrics is quite a disappointment. They could have easily gone the route of an instrumental duo, which would require a bit more work on the songs. This would have served them better since the vocals can hardly be heard on either album. In some situations this is excusable, if the vocals were strong enough to be in the background and still enhanced the overall song, but in this case it comes off as distracting. This may be due to a lack of decent recording equipment, although I would find it hard to believe as, for the most part, the music sounds well-mixed. I think both of these musicians are very talented, yet are not confident enough in their abilities and are simply too eager to please and release music that ranges from mediocre to spectacular, instead of just taking the time to truly hone their craft and make an incredible album that would leave us all amazed. Many will still find Ruis enjoyable, for it is, but what it could be makes it difficult not to cringe. Our potential always haunts us, encouraging yet reminding what could be as opposed to what is.
Ending with over a minute of natural samples or field recordings and of the whistle of a train, along with some drums, Green Elder truly manage to make these atmospheric elements into another instrument altogether, yet at the same time, they rely way to heavily on these homegrown elements. “Speaking with the Dryads” could be Ruis‘ single; if this had been a professional release, I could easily see a label making a video to accompany this track in order to garner some much-deserved attention. “She Who Draws the Dawn” has a chant for Sowillo and lyrics about Norse Traditions, perfect for anyone who follows Heathen/Asatru practices. As an example, read the words to “Of Hardwood and Seed (A Sapling’s Heart)”:
Swans Glide, ripples on glass
the skies open wide, and the seasons pass
on this lake before the trees, I bide my time
sands forgotten, to the oak and the pine
souls inside, the swallows fly
and the willows weep, a carnal pantomime
the Earth born, of hardwood and seed
sapling and tree, my heart rests inside
your spirit within me”
This could be the words of Thoreau or Snyder, greats in the conservation world, or more modern names like Roszak and others in ecopsychology. It really seems that, in general, these two lack the confidence needed to reach their full capabilities, especially on vocals. They may be selling themselves short and accepting a familiar approach instead of giving enough time and work to draw many more people in. To compare and contrast, listen to Empyrium, a band that is essentially flawless. My single biggest complaint for them is that they are too perfect at what they do. Empyrium is much more along the lines of a classical band, who undoubtedly would at least earn the respect of any music connoisseur, regardless of preferred tastes. Green Elder, on the other hand, would fit well at some local festival playing in their home state, and would do quite well at it. I guess it is a question of what they are going for. Do they want to release a couple albums every year of quality music, that quite a few enjoy, or do they want to take a year working on an album and giving it a proper recording, giving them the opportunity to present an album to the world worthy of renown? Certainly, it is not so much a question of notoriety but of making music that does not have the feeling that your friends down the road recorded it, even though that is part of the appeal.
Reviewing such an album is strange for I simultaneously find it incredibly enjoyable, yet find a number of things to critique about it. At one point, I recognized that a track like “Liber” easily could have been cut into pieces and incorporated onto a different album. Other tracks, on Home specifically, try to be stretched in the hope that one section is good enough to carry through the whole track. The reliance on ambiance from either natural sounds or flutes leaves a bit to be desired as well, as they would work in particular sections yet these two are incorporated all too often in the hopes of attaining a desired effect. All in all, Green Elder at times shines like a thousand suns, and yet in other moments is simply standard. “Autumn’s Golden Path,” for example, contains a banjo performance that is absurdly memorable and catchy.
There is too little time between albums to perceive of any distinct differences between Ruis and the second release, Home. Perhaps if Ruis was something worked on years ago, forgotten about, and returned to, it would be much different from its successor, but this was not the case. Instead, what we have is one of the more promising debut albums to come out in a long time followed up by an album that is full of songs that have not had adequate time to develop. Comparisons between the two are difficult, considering the lack of possible growth in such a short time. The guitar work is much more impressive on Ruis, which seems to focus a bit more on strong chord progressions. While Home seems to have a bit more intricate guitar playing and arpeggios, its strength lies in a combination of good chords. Home feels a bit stretched out, with a couple tracks and sections that did not need to remain or one part repeated too often.
I keep telling myself that I will take a break from both albums after giving them repeated listens, but that might not be true as many of these songs are already repeating in my head throughout the day. Green Elder tells a story: of traditions, of campfires, of solitude, and of journeys with kin. Taken in sections, they have created some of the finest music to come out of dark Americana in a long time; it is truly memorable and powerful. If they were to cut out the repetitive sections, use a bit more discernment, and either grow as vocalists or simply find someone else or better equipment to record on, Green Elder could easily be one of the most important folk projects in the country. I mean it as a compliment when I say sections of songs could be used in commercials. As with most new bands, potential haunts this project, revealing its full capabilities while attempting to hide poor recording and a few poor decisions over incorporation of particular sections. If these things can be worked out, I cannot even begin to image how much better this could be. Green Elder already have me hooked anyway, so I might as well appreciate their music for what it is. After all, Home and life in general are very much the same: somehow both remain beautiful contained within all of their respective flaws.
01) A Glimmer Into the Thicket
02) The Cabin
03) The Cold Hearth
04) She Who Draws the Dawn
06) Speaking with the Dryads
08) Returning Home
01) Prayer to Mother
02) Autumn’s Golden Path
03) Carving Life onto Monoliths
04) Of Hardwood and Seed (A Sapling’s Heart)
05) Wandering Meadows
07) Reel of Cernunnos