Delta Sands is a place where lightly plucked cello can dance on the same plane as gentle rains of synthesizers. There’s a peace, not a tension, between these two schools of instruments. Both float together in Opal Onyx’s album-length dream, a deft and eerie debut grouped around singer Sarah Nowicki’s voice. Calling to mind the subdermal post-rock of both Thee Silver Mt. Zion and the Dirty Three, this Brooklyn-based electro-acoustic duo — Matthew Robinson completes the other half — deal in subtle, patient noir.
Nowicki sings with lipstick on, and it’s her classical slant that lends the record its most interesting flavor. She distinguishes herself from the specter of R&B that permeates New York and everywhere, aligning with Low’s Mimi Parker, but sounding even more formal. “Personal” gives her a rolling bass line to chase around the shadows; there, her voice breaks through the ambience that coats most of the album, articulating consonants with a clarity that turns the song into one of the album’s strongest. Sometimes the reverb becomes overwhelming, as on the mood piece “Iron Age”. Many of these songs make it clear why so many people think of the effect as a fluid.
When Opal Onyx grab hold of a song, they prove to be much more than twirlers of smoke. “Fruit of Her Loins” pits Nowicki’s vocals against a strange biological hum. “The whole world calls your name,” she sings before stabbing at the high end of her range with minor-key acrobatics. The force of her voice competes with the evolving translucence of the instrumentation. The song alternately threatens and refuses to fade into the air. On the closing title track, an artificial, deathly voice pads out two chords beneath Nowicki’s lively, flexible singing. The record ends on a steady beat shrouded in curtains of vocals, a promising, if muted, synthpop flash.
Opal Onyx have made a tentative first foray into recording, playing like a duo who maybe haven’t realized just how fascinating their instincts are. Much of Delta Sands feels cautious to the point of reticence, but the textures and structures on display throughout the album tease a bolder goth sensibility beneath the slow tempos and filtered guitars. There is a ferocity inside songs like “The Devil” and “Black and Crimson”, a blood that runs hot below cool skin. Mostly, that fierceness lies tamed by a penchant for languid drones, but for the moments they let themselves bleed, Opal Onyx should catch the attention of the gloom-minded who don’t mind indulging a very slow burn.
Essential Tracks: “Black and Crimson”, “Personal”, and “Fruit of Her Loins”