Album Aaron Strumpel - Elephants
In the beginning of April, Calvin College held their every-other-year Festival of Faith and Music with artists including Over the Rhine, Lupe Fiasco, and David Bazan. As part of the repertoire, one artist was chosen from thirty-nine entries in a band spotting contest to perform on the last night of the festival. This year, Aaron Strumpel (Restoration Project, Enter the Worship Circle) won the competition with entries from his upcoming Elephants album. As he and some friends took stage and started into their first song, there was no doubt in the audience's mind that the judges’ choice was spot on.
Aaron was joined by fellow Worship Circler Todd Berger along with Todd and Angie Fadel from Agents of the Future for their four song set. Right from the start, Aaron’s solid songwriting abilities was complemented by Berger and Angie's instrumentation and ignited by Todd’s physical vigor that assimilated a presence on stage that would not be forgotten even after the rest of the bands played that night. Acoustic, piano, harmony, synth, trumpet, tom drum, and a unique percussion set (which included a typewriter) rounded up like a herd of pachyderm setting forth to take you on a soulful journey. And with the strength of an Elephant, you were going to be moved whether you originally wanted to or not.
A special indulgence was hearing Aaron’s usually stripped down and acoustic "Twenty Three" (from Chair and Microphone vol. 2) with the rest of the band. Aaron said that Elephants was the result of being on the road for five years with only a guitar; creativity and angst was being built up in some ways and needed another medium to be released and expressed through. Hearing "Twenty Three" transformed showed this process, as well as the maturity of Aaron’s writing ability to take four chords and the truth and interweave simplicity and complexity into something that was already beautiful to begin with and reveal more of its character on another level.
While nothing can replace a live performance, Elephants is by no means any less exciting or musically inferior. Thanks to the layers on each of the tracks, the concert experience translates nicely into the album. The album title is fitting as most tracks are interlaced with deep drum stomps, rough-skinned backing loops and Aaron’s own trumpet. The sound is experimental, but with purpose, folk rock based but uniquely integrated with a variety of instrumentation; it carries an element of abstraction to it with soul that bleeds through the vocals.
Some tracks contain accents of industrial jazz, whether vocally ("Blow Out the Wick," "Family") or instrumentally ("In Babylon"), that do not seem to quite fit together, yet do, showing that their tempo dissonance conveys something in and of itself. "Right Through" contains some mandolin action with an Irish feel while "One Twenty One" and "Fifty One" are built off of their Psalmic name-sakes, affirming both the depth of ancient scripture and Aaron's ability to translate into something faithful and relevant. The thesis of the album seems to be found in Won't Stop with lyrics conveying God's strong, faithful love regardless of our ability and fragility (Your breath it rushes and fills my lungs / like a hurricane rushes and floods my home / You won't sit back, You never sit back / You come in close, You never hold back).
Though Elephants is full of gusto, its overarching orchestration doesn't leave you exhausted thanks to instrumental tracks ("After," "Melee," "Procession") and the more melancholy last quarter ("This Can't Last," "First Love"). It is an interesting and progressive folk rock album that refuses to be tamed and gives you something to ruminate on during and after the listening experience.