Sarah Nowicki and Matthew Robinson are a darkly entrancing Brooklyn duo who produce and release music as Opal Onyx with collaborator Heidi Sabertooth. They’re in a class of experimental electronic musicians that are rooted in the manipulation of emotions through atmosphere rather than the physical nature of tape. Delta Sands is their debut full-length album, a foreboding and theatrical trip through passion.
Opal Onyx is good for the same reason that Sunn O))) is awesome: creepy as shit, but intensely beautiful in their own niche way. Both have an eerie ambiance that is soothing and pleasurable (try napping to Sunn O))) – it’s amazing). Both contrast harshness with subtly – for Opal Onyx, it’s the disquieting texture of a sustained cello note; for Sunn O))), sub-bass pitches – to unsettle and engage the listener. Finally, both use funereal chord structures that impart a feeling of impending doom.
The two bands seriously differ in their subject matter, understandable lyrics notwithstanding. There are certainly nods to the occult, but the imagery of – say – The Devil is far better interpreted as lasting emotions from a personal relationship or being eaten by one’s faults rather than an actual satanic figure. Indeed, the themes of Delta Sands are quite personal – hell, there’s a song title called exactly that. The track’s ambiguous enough that anyone can feel despondent if that’s their flavour. But negativity isn’t necessarily a requisite: Opal Onyx have an abyssal tone that matches the unsettling mysteriousness of Jarboe, especially on The Devil, but tracks like Bright Red Crayons betray a warm side.
Delta Sands is a melancholy affair, often trudging along at a nigh-standstill through wave after wave of dissonant electronics and chugging cellos. But really, “chugging” is the best word here: The Devil has the painstakingly slow tempo of a dirge, and Iron Age’s four and a half minute run time feels so much longer. This would typically be a fault, but it speaks to Nowicki and Robinson’s technical ability as composers that the feelings of unconscionable longing and the kind of despair where there’s no light at the end of the tunnel are so effectively translated in tandem with some degree of warmth.
The two ground themselves in baroque textures with a Stygian bleakness that rivals The Haxan Cloak, mixing electroacoustic instrumentation with strings. Personal, Arrows Wing, and Bright Red Crayons feature a noticeable guitar plucking – it’s quite pretty. The results are layered against numerous effects, backings, and vocal samples that give each song a cavernous texture, as if the band is playing to an empty, run-down theatre. That texture occasionally lends itself to one-notedness; full album run-throughs can easily lead to several songs blurring together. It’s a little disappointing considering the strength of the compositions. Delta Sands is generally better when broken up into chunks on a playlist.
Sometimes the layering itself becomes a problem. Fruit Of Her Loins has some of the most disturbing imagery on the album, but the myriad of filters throws off the creepiness factor and makes the song rather impenetrable. It’s done right on the title (and closing) track, as the alternating electronic chords seriously amp up the end-times factor. Nowicki’s wordless, open-mouthed self-backings recall the extremely early demos of late-’90s Evanescence, when Amy Lee and co. were way more an industrial metal/gothic rock hybrid as opposed to the edgy-rock-for-edgy-teenagers of 2003’s Fallen and beyond. There’s none of those industrial shenanigans here, but each lyric is sung with the same ghostly operatic quality even if the words are occasionally a bit wrung out.
Delta Sands is impressive but sounds timid, as if there are a few bits to which Opal Onyx weren’t entirely committed. Stand-outs such as the title track, Iron Age, and Bright Red Crayons are sweeping, but others (such as Fruit Of Her Loins) don’t hold on enough despite some grand ideas that are waiting to come up for air. A bit more experimentation in the studio should fix this, and Opal Onyx certainly have a fascinating flair for the dramatic that will make for a provoking career.