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A Diamond in the Rust Belt

Instrumental rockers Emeralds return with a terrific new album

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When Black Keys drummer Pat Carney picked up and moved from Akron to Nashville, he left a tremendous amount of cool retro gear behind in his recording studio. For the Cleveland-based instrumental act Emeralds, Carney's loss became their gain. Last year, they spent a month (26 days to be exact) recording their new album, Just to Feel Anything, at the place. They practically lived in the studio and would even stay overnight so they could wake up in the morning and immediately begin recording.

"It's kind of a private zone," says Emerald's multi-instrumentalist John Elliott one recent afternoon while he and multi-instrumentalist Steve Hauschildt had coffee at the Gypsy Beans & Bakery in Ohio City. "These nerds with all this gear are there, and even though bands record there, no one band came into the studio and said, 'We're going to make a record for a month.' So we had the place to ourselves."

When they went to explore the space before recording, they realized they could utilize the odd assortment of instruments available there.

"A lot of the [instruments] even made it onto the album, as we played on a lot of equipment that we don't own," says Hauschildt, adding that they had a number of "weird synthesizers" at their disposal.

"It's a studio that's geared toward the kind of music we make," says Elliott. "And that's hard to find, especially around here. We wanted to go in a completely different direction with this album, and I feel like we achieved that."

The band is the result of years of collaboration. Throughout high school, Elliott and multi-instrumentalist Mark McGuire, who's recently moved to Los Angeles, played in a variety of punk bands before they formed Emeralds with Steve Hauschildt, who had been friends with Elliott since kindergarten. In 2004, they all started "screwing around with music and jamming and started making more outsider stuff."

While there was a period in the '90s when post-rock acts experimented with sound structures and caught on with indie rock fans, the Emeralds guys say that's not the kind of music that inspired them.

"We're not really into post-rock stuff like Tortoise and Stereolab," says Elliott. "The stuff we were listening was a lot weirder than that. There's nothing experimental to me about Godspeed You Black Emperor. That's kind of boring to me. I like weirder sounds."

The band's first "official" release was 2008's experimental release Solar Bridge.

"Everything before that album was demos and small editions for friends," says Elliott of the album that came out on Hanson, the label run by Wolf Eyes' Aaron Dilloway, a transplant to Oberlin. "It was the first time we went into the studio with the intention of making an album that would be mass-marketed."

The group followed Solar Bridge up with 2009's What Happened and that same year issued a self-titled, self-released album.

"That record did really well," says Elliott. "It was crazy. I remember we had the records sent up to us from Nashville, and we sold them all in one day. That was a big thing for us. We just emailed distributors, and they all wanted copies."

With 2010's Does it Look Like I'm Here?, the band had a breakthrough. The album received a glowing review from the hipster music site Pitchfork, and the band toured with the celebrated indie rock act Caribou.

"We got a lot of offers to do other things after the release of that album," says Elliott.

Just to Feel Anything might just be the band's best album. It kicks off with the atmospheric "Before Your Eyes," but then adopts an accessible groove for the synth-heavy "Adrenochrome." A sinewy guitar solo holds "Everything in Inverted" together, and the percolating title track pays homage to Tangerine Dream, one of the band's influences.

"With our last records, we would just pile on sounds and create a collage, and it would work really well," says Hauschildt. "It wasn't always a collage, but there would be certain amounts of layers. On this record, we focused on getting one sound great as opposed to having five different sounds all at once. We played with dynamics a lot more on this album, whereas with the last album we would just blast for a while. Some of those songs had more space, but not as much as the songs here.

While the band performed at last year's artist-curated fest All Tomorrow's Parties, playing live hasn't been a priority, in part because of logistics.

"With the kind of equipment we use and the kind of set that we want to play, it's hard for us to find a show, because our gear is so finicky and hard to maintain and archaic," Elliott says. "When we do tour, it has to be right, and we won't tour until we can give people an accurate representation of our sound. It's frustrating to go out there and not be able to do what you want because you're limited by the kind of equipment you can bring with you. We're hoping to tour the states, which we haven't done in years.

Of course, some of that will depend on how Just To Feel Anything is received.

"We haven't intentionally made it a divisive album," says Elliott. "We're expecting a minor backlash because we're changing out direction, but we see it as a logical progression. Having been a band for six or seven years, you'll have fans that like the older stuff. There's nothing wrong with that, but there's no point in looking back."

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