Initially, Cheat The Gallows sounds like some grand Pink Floyd-ish rip-off, featuring an opening track that swirls in synths and distinctly Brit-rock sounding riffs. Nothing new, of course. You've heard it done almost every year by some eager indie group who's hoping to lift their influence's mojo rather than create their own. But soon enough, Big Elf proves itself to be a group of genuine artists ... and on that same exact opening track, no less. Yes, even after it transforms itself, the music still owes a mighty debt to pure, classic Brit-rock. But it's also done to damn near perfection.
It's one thing to cop your favorite '70s act and then present it as a pastel copy, but it takes skill to make it sound like a whiff of fresh air. The L.A.-based Big Elf certainly rocks throughout this disc, even if the listener can trace every riff back to its mid-'70s source. These songs — sometimes backed by large string sections and horn arrangements — rise and fall, often building slowly into large explosions of energy and emotion a la Deep Purple's "Child in Time." Other tracks, especially the dynamic "Superstar," rise from repeated listens of Bowie's Hunky Dory and Queen's Sheer Heart Attack — which means they're both catchy and lotsa fun. Guitarist Ace Mark and bassist Duffy Snowhill usually just stay glued into a groove, churning out simple yet adept supporting riffs. And when the band heads into hard-edged Black Sabbath territory, Ace doesn't hesitate to throw out a wild and, quite simply, dirty little solo. All the while, crooner Damon Fox's smooth soprano does its best to avoid comparison but really exhibits a decidedly Roger Waters cast. Nevertheless, he's also a joy to hear, no matter what the influence but especially when he tries his hand at Marc Bolan-type vocal flourishes.
In the end, it all fits together so perfectly — it's sheer gorgeous musical construction and songwriting — that it might slide right into your record collection, next to Deep Purple, Queen, Bowie, and, yes, even Pink Floyd.
Kent Alexander writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.