In the long, diaphanous tradition of New Age and the more insidious mutation that is Chill Vibes playlist fodder, the music of water has been co-opted by those who would reduce it to steady drips, running streams and rain pattering on rooftops.
The sounds that reveal water’s true, earth-moving power — the thrum inside your head as you’re engulfed by surf, the roar of a pregnant, charcoal cloud or the bone crushing, dominating silence that exists thousands of feet beneath the ocean — are typically lost.
The debut album from Nêhiyawak, nipiy — which is Cree for “water” — works to correct that imbalance.
Harnessing water’s more violent rhythms, the amiskwaciy-based band — the land known to English speakers as Edmonton — conjures clean, glowering experimental rock meditations that weave personal trials and Indigenous histories.
Guitarist and vocalist Kris Harper, drummer Marek Tyler and synth/bass player Matthew Cardinal, along with New Pornographers producer Colin Stewart, create a soundscape that melds elliptical synths, dense drones and wiry post-punk guitar to an often-thrilling effect.
Traditional instruments — Tyler plays carved cedar drum logs repeatedly throughout the record — mingle among celestial, bell-like synths and drones that could push a stone across the river bottom on opener “kisiskâciwanisîpiy pêyak.”
However, the meditative introduction is something of a red herring.
The next few tracks flow wildly through various styles — from indie-rock-meets-witch-house stomps on “copper,” to bright, bluesy guitar pop on “somnambulist” and the aqueous, angular post-punk on “page.”
Though it covers plenty of stylistic ground, nipiy’s spacious, flinty production lends a blue-tinged richness that helps tie each additional experiment to the previous — everything just seems to flow.
Though it feels modern for its genre-hopping and electronic modulations, nipiy retains a sense of deep and unshakeable tradition, a sense of home and place.
Samples of Indigenous voices flit in and out of frame like ghosts, playing against Harper’s keening timbre and placing this searching, water-bound record in the endless realm of traditional storytelling.
It’s quite the feat, to craft something so present and yet so eerily of another place.
It will likely take many more listens to plumb the full depths of nipiy, and to understand the world, both ancient and new, that it conjures.
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