The experimental duo Opal Onyx were formed in the dimmed light of Brooklyn’s DIY scene – a scene that was already in critical condition before the pandemic. “We don’t go to warehouse spaces anymore because they don’t exist,” says Matthew Robinson, the band’s cellist and synth player. “The most important cultural institutions in Brooklyn are all being shut down, and they’re not being replaced.”
Vessel is their first album in five years, and it captures the urgency and decaying atmosphere of the scene that birthed them. But compared to the fog and murk of their stunning debut, Delta Sands, it is an album of glassy clarity and alien vistas. Sarah Nowicki’s vocals are front-and-centre, and her commanding presence anchors the record even in its wild shots of noise and unravelling electronic textures.
There’s still darkness and grit, but the monster doesn’t lurk in the dark anymore; it gets up close enough for you to feel its breath. Her lyrics take more emphasis this time around, like the bitter chorus of ‘Lovers Toil’, the words “You don’t know what love is do you?” circling around sinister drum blasts and synth fragments. The themes on Vessel are intentionally cryptic, a simple argument turned into something much more apocalyptic.
There’s a cosmic bent to Nowicki’s writing that’s emphasised with stunning cello passages and foreboding, bass-heavy drum loops. These pieces made Delta Sands feel like a revelation when it came out, but the duos songcraft has only gotten more powerful since. Songs like ‘Micro’ and ‘Wayside Tears’ have earworm melodies that work their stunning soundplay into something more moving. Opal Onyx have an incredible skill for taking familiar patterns and making them feel new, like the bluesy verse of ‘World Within Worlds’, that reads like a classic Portishead song until droning organs and glistening strings shoot us upwards into the stars.
It’s a striking collection that underlines the magic that can come from a fiercely independent approach. Let’s hope we collectively learn to cherish DIY art makers moving forward.
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