As touched upon by many publications, 2016 was a great year for female-fronted music. Bands like Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas, Darkher, Esben and the Witch and Oceans of Slumber combined excellent instrumentation with dark and powerful clean vocals that weren’t gimmicky or soulless. The brooding and stark gloominess of these bands have drawn much attention in the metal-verse, just as Chelsea Wolfe and Myrkur stormed into the malleable hearts of many metal-fanatics in years past. Enter NOÊTA, a Swedish two-piece performing brooding and barren dark-folk inspired ditties touched by ambient darkness and the next band on this introspective female-fronted conveyor belt. Can they add anything different?
Beyond Life and Death, NOÊTA‘s debut full-length, consists of nine songs that are conceptually divided into three parts: “the meeting with emotion as the meaning of life, a cold resignation and anxiety, and the horror-filled respect for a hard nature without bounds.” The album is a much more engaging and immersive beast with this concept in mind. The final third of the album, personally, towers over the rest. The mood in these final three songs is captivating, each song feels different, and each carries an unease and unique footprint that the six prior tracks do not necessarily possess, beautiful as they are.
To begin at the beginning is to begin with drums like a slow and heavy heartbeat and ritualistic cleans that snake and echo. Opener “Beyond Life,” however, is the weakest track of the album, falling flat because of its opening pattern — repeated slowly for five-plus minutes — conjures little that captivates interest or instills awe. A lot of Beyond Life and Death is reminiscent of the softer moments of Darkher without the doom-inspired crescendos and build-ups. Follow-up “In Drowning” takes on a lighter acoustic approach with Êlea’s cleans weaving between lonely acoustic arpeggios. These acoustic led tracks act as the delicate backbone of Beyond Life and Death; NOÊTA’s reliance on them detracts ever so slightly from the album as a whole. “Darkest Desires” for example, despite its initial alluring atmosphere, fails to really anchor itself emotionally, rather it grazes the surface and fades out of sight and out of mind. Similarly “Dead Soil,” relying on fragile acoustic melodies and subtle vocals, doesn’t progress or expand upon what came before. These are songs that simmer but rarely boil. A motionless placidity is a motif here.
However, there are moments where ominousness and melody merge in spectacular ways. Fifth track “In Void” (part of the cold resignation and anxiety trio of songs) is one of two stand-outs. It opens with dark, folky arpeggios and somber, mellowed vocals that snake and coil expertly together. The occasional aptly timed discordant note throws the beautiful melodies off-balance. Meanwhile, an ambient buzz ebbs and flows through the mix like a sea of wasps. This swarm-like hum invades the subtle melodies as key changes attempt to evade the invading ambiance. It’s these subtle ambient textures that rise to the fore that add an extra level of immersion.
Final track “Urkaos,” focusing on the “horror-filled respect for a hard nature without bounds,” is strikingly different from the rest due to Êleas vocal absence and its dark, ambient, and oppressive atmosphere. Here, the instrumentals, unfettered by vocals and melody, are given the space to create an unsettling ambient nightmare. A spoken-word monologue talking about the existence of a soul, introspective consciousness, and subjective reality haunts through the mix; as if trapped in a vast chamber, a hollow whirring pervades, giving the spoken-word vocals a dream-like, disembodied depth. This is enhanced by dirge-slow piano arpeggios and the deep hum of what seems to be a cello. The final forty seconds descend into even more haunting territories. Distant and warping minimalism acts as the foundation for backward sounding subliminal-message inspired vocals before faltering to an end. I haven’t been this absorbed in a song for a while.
Beyond Life and Death is a very good album that could have been great with less reliance on acoustic guitars and conventional song structures. Some songs stagnate and fail to cast a mesmeric net from the beginning to hook a listener. These songs, however, are counterbalanced by some beautifully dark moments that are constructed expertly and layered with haunting and immersive ambiance. Production-wise, too, the album has a satisfying depth that allows for the textured sounds to emerge full-heartedly. This is well worth your time if you’re looking to quench a melancholic thirst. NOÊTA demonstrate that music doesn’t have to be brutal to keep you awake at night.