Back in 2013, Karl Urban and Michael Ealy starred in Almost Human, a science fiction buddy cop/police procedural network series set in the future. The show centered around Urban as a human cop and Ealy as his android partner. The tension of the canceled-too-early series was that Ealy seems to be sentient and in possession of a soul. El Ten Eleven is what it would sound like if sentient robots, like Ealy’s Pinocchio-esque android, decided to form a duo. Banker’s Hill, their latest album, is what one has come to expect from the band: interesting, instrumental music that’s electronic yet soulful. It’s rock energy and performance filtered, literally, through heavily processed, digital sounds.
We tend to think of two-member rock bands as lo-fi and ragged. Think early White Stripes, Black Keys, Japandroids, Middle Class Rut, Whitey Houston, or what have you. El Ten Eleven is also a duo, but an electronically-influenced one, featuring Kristian Dunn on bass and guitar and Tim Fogarty on drums. But their instrumental music is held together with loops and samples, giving their music a sound that’s anything but garage-y.
I was a big fan of El Ten Eleven’s 2004 self-titled debut and their latest continues that electronic rock vibe. The big difference is the expansiveness of the sound. Songs are almost orchestral, in tone but also in structure. Song titles do a surprisingly good job of capturing the essence of each track. “Listening to Clouds” has a keyboard-like sound, with long musical slides, making the listener feel like they’re gliding along clouds. “This Morning With Her Having Coffee” is quiet and plaintive, like enjoying a cozy, early-morning coffee with a loved one. “Three and a Half Feet High and Rising,” clocking in at over five minutes, rises and falls like a wave. The song evolves, even disappearing for a few moments, before resuming, just like watching the ocean from the beach. It’s beautiful, but most importantly for a group without vocals, it’s interesting.
Banker’s Hill is tough to describe. It’s got a rock energy but a classical sensibility. Songs don’t have choruses or verses; movements would be a much more accurate description. The band uses the tools of traditional rock, like distorted guitars, but often to create contrast within their songs, such as “You Are Enough,” which is poppy and singable, but ends with El Ten Eleven’s take on rock guitars. Dunn and Fogarty push musical boundaries while also staying aware of them. The songs are lush without being layered past the point of recognition. And that awareness of boundaries is what makes El Ten Eleven and Banker’s Hill successful. The band works to keep humanity within its songs. Banker’s Hill is enjoyable because Dunn and Fogarty are pushing the limits of what a rock band sounds like while still sounding like a band. It’s no easy feat, for man or machine.