I heard a few months ago that Ela Stiles was doing a solo a cappella album. This is a significant shift from her previous work: Ela started her career playing for Sydney band Songs, then moved on to Melbourne rock trio Bushwalking.
As a guitar pop band, Songs is pretty far away from what Ela is doing now. Bushwalking occasionally lean towards a cappella, with the vocals playing a big part in the songs, although their songs are still heavily driven by the rhythm section and some pretty incredible guitar sounds. In fact, Bushwalking’s albums and Ela’s new self-titled LP have hypnotic melodies and rhythms in common. I’ve always found when watching or listening to Bushwalking that I end up nodding like an idiot.
Before Ela’s LP, I’d never listened to an a cappella record in my life. When I searched around the internet for other a cappella stuff it was horrible and scary, weird pop groups doing contemporary covers and making drums sounds with their mouths. Here’s one example of how horrifying the a cappella world is:
It’s seems you can keep going forever in this dark corner of YouTube. I wouldn’t recommend it. The difference between this strange thing called a cappella and what Ela is doing is massive.
Ela’s LP feels dramatic right from the start. There are some really dark harmonies and even the reverb sounds very dark, without being dull. There’s a lot of space and the sound of the room really sinks in, which gives it a very intimate feeling.
When I was sent the album I was on my way out to go to work, so I decided to listen to it on the way. Riding through the dark, cold night it felt like something terrible might happen: the whole experience was pretty interesting. Riding back home at four the next morning, I listened to the album again. It felt really surreal and as I was getting close to home — during the last track — it became pretty overwhelming.
As in her previous records, it’s obvious from the LP’s first single, ‘Kumbh Mela’, that Ela has a voice well suited to harmonies. The harmony in ‘Kumbh Mela’ really adds to the chorus, giving it a total dynamic lift – something that is no doubt difficult to achieve on an a cappella album.
As with any album, after a few listens you start to pick up on some lyrics. The words to ‘Kumbh Mela’ really stuck out once I’d read up on the mass Hindu pilgrimage after which it was named. With this in mind, a bit of a lyrical theme seemed to appear: worship and selflessness.
It’s not clear who the subject of this worship is, or if it is any person at all, but I like the contrast between the picturesque chorus ‘Kumbh Mela night, starry sky and all the people would see such a sight’ and the darker-sounding last verse ‘Kumbh Mela around you now that they have found you, would do anything for you, anything you say is true’. This seems to be about the dark side of religion, with leaders and prophets exercising total control over their followers.
Some other lyrics on the album lean towards a sort of devotion to a person, maybe not quite religious, but a strong caring. Particularly good are the lines
If I could make you happy, I’d do anything just to see you smile true
I know you think you’re not worth it, but I’d do anything for you
from ‘Anything’ and
I’ll wait with sickness in my stomach and tears in my eyes, I’ll wait I’ll wait I’ll wait
from ‘Legs Won’t Bend’. They remind you of the feeling of being rejected by the subject of your devotion.
The album has a pretty awkward track listing, which would be even more noticeable on a record. Once the first track is over, side A seems to fly by. The LP doesn’t really slow down until the last track, ‘Drone Transitions’, which nearly redeems the weird flow of the first side.
Thinking about how this might have sounded with a band behind it makes you wonder what could have inspired Ela to write and record an a cappella album. She does have a beautiful voice, and perhaps with more instruments the melodies would get lost and the harmonies watered down.
A cappella means ‘in the manner of the church’, and there are some religious themes in this record that make it feel like a personal religious journey. In the same way, it also feels like there’s some ‘world music’ influence, although the term ‘world music’ seems like such a ridiculous one — somehow encompassing all music of the world that isn’t western — and I’m not really sure what specific subgenre of ‘world music’ this could belong to. Some of the songs seem to use ‘non-western’ melodies, like on ‘Untitled Drone’, but there are still plenty of familiar, recognisable sounds in tracks like ‘Untitled Man’.
Although this LP hasn’t made me an a cappella enthusiast, I will be interested to hear what Ela does next. It is both an interesting and a very enjoyable LP, and although I haven’t yet found the perfect time and place to enjoy it, I think anyone can form a bond with an album this intimate.
‘Ela Stiles’ is out now from Bedroom Suck Records.
Curtis Wakeling is a musician and member of Velcro.