When does a math rock band stop being a math rock band? …one might ask upon entering Dreams, the latest album from the premier Taiwanese math rock band Elephant Gym. On their third full-length, the Kaohsiung City trio continues augmenting their guitar-bass-drums line-up with some elements less native to rock music, including jazz flute, horns, piano, sax, traditional Taiwanese drums, and even a bit of scat singing.
Of course, just using non-rock instruments to do non-rock things doesn’t stop a group from being a rock band. And in many places on Dreams, Elephant Gym does continue to do pretty rock-type stuff. “Shadows” has some Hendrix-y guitar distortion and an Amen-adjacent drum break that makes it sound a bit like a rock song (until it doesn’t anymore). And the band definitely rocks out at the end of “Gaze At Blue,” so that counts.
But then, there are just as many places on Dreams where Elephant Gym doesn’t bother trying to convince their audience that they’re always and forever a rock group. “Anima” and “Wings” are jazz songs. “Dear Humans” is probably a jazz song too, although it’s admittedly kinda borderline. “Dreamlike” flirts with waltz, and “Dream Of You” closes out the album with something I can only oxymoronically describe as a folksy synthpop crooner. And “Deities’ Party” is dope as hell but I couldn’t quite tell you what it is.
Anyway, my point is that with each new album, Elephant Gym sounds less and less like a band you can capture with umbrella terms, even if that umbrella is as wide as something like “math rock.” But first impressions are sticky, so the fact that Elephant Gym has for a while been more than the bass-driven math rock group they were originally billed as doesn’t mean many won’t continue thinking of them that way. If memory serves, it took about four albums for people to realize that GoGo Penguin wasn’t jazz anymore, so maybe E-Gym will be able to fully shed their old skin in another few years or so.
Fortunately, Fecking Bahamas’ inclusive manifesto means that whatever Elephant Gym is now, they’re fair game to write about here. Which likely means that whoever’s reading this probably doesn’t care too much about defining them either, and is just waiting for me to pull my head out of my pontificating ass and tell them whether “Dreams” is good or not.
Yes, it’s good. In fact, it’s very good. It’s hands-down the best album that Elephant Gym has ever made, and it’s also better than a lot of albums that other people have made. And despite all my quibbling around labels, it’s a great album for people who like math rock. The guitar runs on “Witches” feel like watching a perfectly choreographed modern dance routine from the middle of the stage. The drumming’s as crisp as pork fat crackling on a stovetop. There’s a cool update on an old toe classic (you’ll figure out which one), and there’s no shortage of bad-ass bass parts (see: “Dreams Of You”).
Even when Elephant Gym deviates from the traditional math rock formula (ha, formula – get it?), they pretty consistently stick the landing. The stellar vocal addition by 9m88 on “Shadows” makes one wonder why math rock bands don’t work with RnB artists more often. Their collaboration with the Chio Tian Folk Drums And Art Troupe has more stylistic twists than a Daoist parable. And as for the jazzy bits – well, if you’re a self-professed fan of asymmetric music and you’re not already listening to jazz, Dreams offers a solid bridge into that world.
Ultimately, it’s Dreams’ ability to hopscotch around standard sonic classifications that make it such an intriguing and enjoyable listen. Which, in hindsight, means that spilling 500 words opining on its genre category is probably a waste of time (although hopefully not dull reading). Whatever your perspective on the matter, Elephant Gym has made it clear they’re not interested in picking a lane, and the world is frankly better off for it.
(Editor’s Note: We’re wildly excited to introduce our latest contributor, Collin Smith! Collin’s work has been featured on Bandcamp, the latest of which you can check out here. We think you’ll find that his style and attention to detail are perfectly in line with what we do around here. Speaking of, if you enjoy us so, please feel free to buy us a coffee here. It goes a lot further than you might think! Regardless, coming up we’ve got POUND, the insider scoop on a legendary recording studio with Childspeak, a chat with Mathcore Index, and much, much more. Enjoy!)