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Demen, "Nektyr"

cover imageThis is the debut release from Swedish chanteuse Irma Orm, an album that Kranky has been eagerly anticipating for a couple of years after receiving an anonymous and mysterious invitation to hear some early recordings.  If I had to guess why the album took so long to complete, I would venture to say that one of those early pieces was probably the opening "Niorum" and that Orm has spent the entire time trying in vain to recapture that brilliance.  She admittedly succeeds at least once, but the bulk of Nektyr sounds like a stark, time-stretched, and drifting marriage of This Mortal Coil and the Twin Peaks soundtrack that is shrouded in shadow and artfully blurred into dream-like soft-focus.  I suppose the highlights sound a lot like that too, but Nektyr works best when there is a skeleton of a hooky song lurking amidst all the darkness and fog.


Orm describes her aesthetic as "doom pop," which is probably the most concise description of Nektyr that anyone could possibly venture.  That said, it is a bit too simple and reductionist to truly capture how unusual Demen's aesthetic can be, as many of these pieces are quite vaporous and experimental and the only real "pop" element is Orm's strong and soulful (if reverb-swathed) voice.  Also, even if the definition of "pop" is stretched to include torch songs, Orm still manages to occasionally elude its constraints.  For example, a piece like "Illdrop" sometimes sounds like an undead Siren luring a hapless ship through a thick fog to grisly and macabre doom.  More significantly, Orm seems to have zero interest in the structural restraints of conventional songcraft, as her melodies alternately blossom forth from murky ambiance or unexpectedly dissolve back into it.  That tendency places Nektyr in a curious grey area, as Demen's songs are often too drifting and glacially paced to actually feel like songs, yet too melodic to work as drone or ambient music.  It is quite a perilous and strange tightrope to walk, as Nektyr's lovingly crafted shadow-world of Romantic melancholy can sometimes feel barely there, yet the spell can be easily broken by a too-strong melody or too-lively drum machine pattern.

When Demen hits the mark, however, the results can be quite alluring.  The piece that immediately connected with me is the aforementioned "Niorum," as the most prominent musical motif is a slooooowly unfolding and cavernously reverberating melody of weirdly breathy and organic-sounding tones.  In some ways, it resembles a pitch-shifted pan flute, but in other ways it sounds like the turning of massive, rusted gears in an ancient and cobweb-strewn clock tower.  Gradually, the piece coheres into an actual song as an off-kilter drum machine groove locks in and Orm's cooing vocals swell and swirl around.  To my delight, the "rusted gear" motif stays delightfully intact, however, and even becomes increasingly and intriguingly unpredictable and splintered.  The only downside is that Orm's vocals occasionally err on the side of being too forceful and soul diva-esque for the bleary twilight mood.  Later in the album, "Ambur" comes a bit closer to perfection with a central motif that sounds like a very deep, hollow, and languorous kalimba or xylophone melody.  Everything seems to come together a bit more naturally and fluidly this time around, as Orm's vocals remain pleasantly ghostly and understated and the second half of the song actually builds to an eerily lovely (if spectral) melodic crescendo of sorts.  Elsewhere, the spare and submerged-sounding ballad "Mea" captures Orm at her songwriting zenith, sounding like a particularly tender and heart-wrenching scene in an imaginary goth musical.  It is atypically brief and focused for a Demen song, clocking in at barely two minutes, but it probably could have become a standard if it had surfaced in a different time and context.

As striking as the highlights are, however, Nektyr has some conspicuous flaws and feels a bit overstretched.  It definitely would have worked better as an EP, as Orm's better ideas would not have been diluted with any lesser material.  Also, this album has some very strange pacing and a bit of an unfortunate tendency to periodically erupt into bombast or melodrama.  This biggest offender in those regards is the 9-minute "Morgon," which begins life as an appealingly slow-motion and ice-veined bit of This Mortal Coil-style dreaminess, then disappears completely into a murky drone interlude, then erupts into a lengthy wailing outro.  Not only does it squander its fine beginning, but it is nearly as long as all of the album's legitimately excellent pieces combined.  Demen's more common tendency, however, is to build a song from too few ideas rather than too many, as the otherwise enjoyable "Flor" and "Korridorer" feel like mere incidental interludes.  Such pieces would be perfectly at home on a more substantial release, but there are only seven songs on Nektyr.  All that said, I wish I liked this album a lot more than I do, as Orm has an impressively bold and ambitious vision, even if the execution only fitfully does it justice (trying to break new ground and avoid conventionality always comes with a steep learning curve).  Also, trying to combine stark minimalism with Romantic grandeur would be a tall order for anyone (especially without any collaborators).  While it would be nice if some of Orm's vocals occasionally escaped the fog of reverb to make a direct emotional connection, the main hurdle here is merely that Orm's songwriting ability has not yet caught up to her impressive talents as a vocalist, crafter of melodies, and sound designer (her strongest gift of all).  Hopefully, that day will come along soon.  In the meantime, this is a respectable debut featuring a pair of fine singles.