Artificial Countrysides is Elf Power’s 14th album and first on Yep Roc Records. Formed in 1994, the Athens, GA based indie rock band is a member of the heralded Elephant 6 collective.
“Artificial Countrysides” is the term Elf Power coined to describe the gray zones where the natural world collides with the creeping encroachment of the digital realm, where the balance between real and simulated can shift from one minute to the next. Artificial Countrysides is also the name of the Athens, GA band’s new album, their first since 2017 and their first for Yep Roc. It’s a collection of 12 spellbinding psych-laced songs that blur the line between traditional and futuristic while seeking to make sense of our relationship to each.
The idea behind the name of the album has a more concrete application, too. “That title also describes the songwriting process, of world-building or creating an artificial landscape within a song,” singer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Rieger says. He and his Elf Power bandmates — drummer Peter Alvanos and guitarist Dave Wrathgabar, with contributions from keyboard player Laura Carter — have created some of the band’s most expansive musical terrain yet.
Artificial Countrysides pushes Elf Power’s music in unexpected directions that accentuate the psych-rock sound the band has been honing for close to 30 years. Along with a blend of fuzz-tone electric and layered acoustic guitars, Moog keyboards and lively drums, the group experimented with the sounds of marimba, Mellotron, harpsichord, synth bass and distorted drum machine loops, all topped with melodies that echo in your head long after the music stops. The effect is electrifying, on songs that are unmistakably from Elf Power, yet muscular and propulsive in a distinctive new way.
“We think a lot about the textures in our songs,” says Rieger, who co-founded the band in 1994. “We’re always trying new things, using different instruments to make songs sound different. It helps to keep things interesting.”
The juxtaposition comes to vivid life on first single “The Gas Inside the Tank.” The song pairs organ and woozy slide guitar with synth bass and the sound of a gurgling Moog for an effect at once disorienting and enveloping, as Rieger imagines a post-apocalyptic world full of deserted cities where people have resorted to siphoning gas from abandoned vehicles. On the second single, album opener “Undigested Parts,” Rieger doubles his vibrant vocal melody with an unsettling whisper as he ponders how unprocessed events and emotions can erupt at unexpected times, pushed along by a dense blanket of fuzzed-out guitars, ethereal keyboards and a mix of live and programmed drums.
Those pairings of new and old weren’t just happenstance. The band has long taken a try-it-and-see approach to creating songs, which the musicians prefer to create in the studio rather than waiting to record until they’ve practiced new tunes a bunch of times.
“I like the challenge of approaching it as a trial-and-error process, so we can spend more time and see what works and what doesn't,” Rieger says. “We build the songs as we’re coming up with them, instead of rehearsing it to death and then recording it. I’ve always felt like that makes for more interesting music for us.”
Elf Power is nearly always working on new music, and the dozen songs on Artificial Countrysides were among 20 or so that began taking shape not long after the group released 2017’s Twitching in Time. Though the band made some of the new album at The Glow studio in Athens, pandemic considerations meant the musicians often recorded their parts by themselves at home. Fortunately, they were in no hurry.
“It happened at an organic, natural pace,” Rieger says. “It was slowed down some by the pandemic, but at this point, we’re not in any huge rush to bust out an album every two or three years like we used to.”
In fact, the album makes a persuasive case that Elf Power is at its most creative when the musicians work without time constraints. After all, if songwriting is about building your own world, the clocks can run on whatever time you want.
Artificial Countrysides is Elf Power’s 14th album in a catalog that includes collaborations with acclaimed producer Dave Fridmann (1999’s A Dream in Sound) and indie-folk singer Vic Chesnutt (2008’s Dark Developments). The band has toured North America, Europe and Japan, playing alongside acts including R.E.M., the Flaming Lips, Dinosaur Jr., Neutral Milk Hotel, Guided by Voices and Arcade Fire. Elf Power is a member of the heralded Elephant 6 collective with their friends and collaborators Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, of Montreal and many more.
Band members also maintain and operate the Orange Twin Conservation Community, 155 acres of beautiful land on the outskirts of Athens that has initiated the development of a highly progressive, self-sustainable and ecologically-minded cluster village and nature preserve, featuring a natural amphitheater that has hosted many concerts.