In his book American Zombie Gothic, author Kyle William Bishop unveils his theory that the walking dead standout as the pinnacle American monster among their legendary peers like vampires, mummies and so on. While the concept of the zombie was born from voodoo in Haiti, that cultural creation came about through the blending of Christianity and various African tribal belief systems resulting from U.S. slavery and colonialism. Being turned into a zombie was initially seen as a threatening curse someone could levy against an enemy to turn them into a mindless willing slave in a vicious system, but filmmakers wasted no time expanding the reach of the fearsome zombie by turning it into a racist tool of fear for entertainment in the form of movies like White Zombie. Bishop doesn’t state it in his book, but what’s more American than cultural appropriation and stoking fears of the “other” in the name of profit?
Would you care to know another example of Italians giving Americans a run for their money? Look no further than the classic western. It’s fair to think there’s no way someone outside of the U.S. could properly capture the lawless adventures of the unexplored desert filled with gunfights, rattlesnakes and moonshine-drenched saloons, but Sergio Leone made two of the most iconic cowboy films in history with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. The strength of Leone’s films is so renowned that it spawned a whole subgenre known as spaghetti westerns.
The Italian western doesn’t have the impactful reach among our beloved music as much as its friends in the horror section, but they profoundly influenced four young men from Savona who would go on to form Black Elephant. The love of their homeland westerns was made immediately clear by their not-so-subtle 2012 debut Spaghetti Cowboy. Their version of Once Upon a Time in the West, however, would replace Charles Bronson’s six-shooters with a couple of spliffs.
“Berta’s Flame” kicks off Seven Swords with ominous tones as if we’re just seeing Bronson walk away from a deadly situation. As he jumps atop his trusty steed, shimmering guitars start to fade in; and with a few brief heavy notes, our adventure begins. Exploratory open notes accompany the steady, easy trot through the desert when a quiet singing voice kicks in to tell us the plan for what lies ahead; the message is in Italian though, so don’t fret about spoilers. Massimilliano Giacosa’s guitar continues to get heavier while it bounces between the ears before locking into an excellent groove that would see our hero at full gallop.
One of Black Elephant’s greatest strengths is their ability to balance sun-drenched jam sessions that meander with well-timed riffs that snap you back to attention. “Berta’s Flame” and the nine-minute closer “Govinda” balance those two elements into single tracks, but the remaining five songs tend to more firmly plant a foot in one lane or the other with shorter runtimes.
“The Last March of Yokozuna” acts almost as an instrumental post-metal take on the blues. There are shimmering infectious riffs straight out of Sky Valley on “Yayoi Kusama.” The title and music of “Red Sun and Blues Sun” certainly scream Kyuss as well, but the extra speed would also have Clutch ready to book, saddle and go. Black Elephant even gives off a hint of Savoy Brown with the slow single guitar opener accompanied by a smoky voice that you imagine was present in every old mud-caked saloon on “Seppuku.”
If you spend enough time wading in the murky acidic waters of extreme metal, there’s a good chance that whenever you hear the word stoner, the term doom shortly follows. With Seven Swords, Black Elephant would like to remind you that the word rock fits in that place just as well. And I’m talking the original sense of the term rock ‘n’ roll that’s essentially an electrified, high-energy take on blues.
That old-school influence is even prominent in the approach to the mix. Throughout the album, instruments are regularly shifting to be heard in one ear or the other and as the climax of a song hits or a lead guitar starts to take off, it bounces back and forth in the vein of Hendrix recordings.
Black Elephant bring back similar guitar parts throughout the album, which will either make it feel like a more unified whole or a repetitive bore depending on your preferences. Luckily, with only a 34-minute runtime, it would be hard for this album to really overstay its welcome.
Seven Swords would be the perfect accompaniment to a bonfire with your friends during a desert camping trip, but we know you’re not really doing that right now anyway. Instead, mute the TV as you start to play your 300th hour of Red Dead Redemption 2 and allow this album to be the soundtrack to your next mountain lion hunting adventure.