There is the genre “ambient” and there is the descriptor “ambient.” And though NOÊTA often seems to aspire to the former, what they have created with their new album, Beyond Life and Death, more likely belongs in the latter.
Ambient music is a weird thing that, to be successful, has to hover between conscious awareness and background music. If it’s too forward and direct, it won’t achieve this effect. If it’s unsuccessful, having it dripping from your stereo is the audio equivalent of watching paint peel. Balance is the key. Brian Eno’s Another Green World is often considered a pioneering work of ambient music, and with good reason. However, consider how different a listener’s reaction is going to be to the instrumental tracks versus the vocal tracks on World. It is very difficult for a listener to hover in the semi-conscious state that good ambient requires when there is singing going on. Singing will generally engage a listener. As David Bynre noted, “Singing is a trick to get people to listen to music for longer than they would ordinarily.” And considering the extensive history of collaboration between Eno and Byrne, it’s safe to say Eno is aware of this opinion—whether he agrees or not being another matter.
“Beyond Death” kicks things off here. The beat of the song is heartbeat-like, though complex in a way that is not immediately obvious. Like many ambient tracks, the time signature of the song is hard to pin down, adding to its ethereal feel. This music, sans vocals, might be successful as ambient (the genre). It is lacking any sort of drums or percussion and feels slinkily removed from time signatures at moments as well—requirements to achieve the between worlds feeling described above. But Êlea’s vocals keep sticking their nose into the mix, arguably to the detriment of the overall feeling. Her phrasing is, at times, reminiscent of Nico’s work post-Velvet Underground, channeling her studied disengagement (a mode that Stereolab also borrowed to great success).
“In Drowning” follows, percussion-less, but it nonetheless feels more straight-ahead black folk. “Darkest Desires” is even more accessible, with a dirge-like quality that successfully highlights the singing, much more integral to this track. “Pneûma,” one of the best tracks, returns to the more ambient vibe, sinister synths fading in from the depths in a track that is much more discomfiting and seems to exist just out of reach. Like some of Aphex Twin’s best ambient work, it seems to hint at something without actually being it; an intro with nothing to introduce.
Both “In Void” and “Dead Soul” are vocal-oriented tracks, the latter with an appealing melancholy vibe, perfectly encapsulated by the song’s title and also host to a rhythm that can be difficult to grab hold of. As the longest song, it feels like it earns its running time, becoming more unsettling as it unspools. “Beyond Death” has a sweetness, again simply Êlea’s vocals, synths a smattering of guitar. It has a redemptive quality appropriate for a later track on an album of this nature, hopeful that something even lies beyond death.
“In Thunder” brings back the sinister, reminding listeners not to become to comfortable with the previous epiphany, before finally winding up with “Urkaos” and what sounds to be a snippet from a movie: “Do you believe there is a soul in the body? And how would you know when you found it?” Played over the uneasy bed of synths that flow like lava, it captures the burbling over of horror that defines self-awareness—namely, we’re all going to die.
What NOÊTA absolutely are successful at is ambient (the descriptor), which might be more informatively called “atmosphere” and the album requires several listens to really sink in. At their best, the sounds of Between Life And Death can paint a mental picture of a smoky bar in purgatory, one step away from the crossroads between Heaven and Hell. And maybe they’re wrestling with a choice, too, as the weakest aspect of the album is the genre jumping. It is the nature of much contemporary music, but a feeling persists that NOÊTA might benefit from being one or the other and embracing it. Are they ambient or ambient? Meh, call it ambient and stamp it “approved.”