Sylvia Plath, despite being an iconic figure in poetry and American literature, was a relatively unappreciated figure in her own time. It took her unfortunate and heartbreaking suicide to really draw attention to what a giant spirit and an unmatched gift with words she had, but now her name stands with the greats of history, giving inspiration to so many, inside and outside of literature. It is from her legacy that the Norwegian/Swedish duo NOÊTA draw inspiration for their sophomore release Elm, the title of which references a poem Plath wrote mere months before her death.
NOÊTA is masterminded by Norwegain singer and songwriter Êlea, who is once again joined by her Swedish collaborator Ândris, who provides most of the instrumental accompaniment to Êlea’s haunting, bewitching vocals. The duo, whose music truly defies easy classification but weaves in and out of folk, ambient, and even shades of black metal (a genre with which Êlea has much prior experience), also recorded and mixed the album themselves, although for the first time in their career they left mastering up to Tore Stjerna at Necromorbus Studio, whose credits include heavy hitters like Mayhem and Watain. While there aren’t any blast beats or wretched vocals on this one, the black metal influence is hard to miss, with droning electric guitars being part of the musical backdrop and the overall sense of gloom and helplessness being strong thematic ties to the genre. It serves as quite a contrast to the star of the show, Êlea’s vocals, which are consistently mesmerizing and spine-chilling. The accompaniment is very minimalist in comparison and the songs are mostly soft, toned-down affairs, but it all serves to let her voice shine brightly, even when it is keening or whispering harshly.
Elm is an album that is very clearly influenced by some strong emotions, as evidenced by the source of inspiration. “The lyrical material serves as an outlet for my own personal struggles,” says Êlea of the songwriting process. “It makes this album more cohesive as it mostly reflects my own musical vision.” Opener “Dawn Falls” kicks things off, not with a bang, but with gentle finger picked acoustic guitars and Êlea’s signature voice. It’s a truly gorgeous piece that does a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the album, although another strength of Elm is its ability to shift effortlessly between dark, unsettling textures and elegant beauty. “From Above and Below” puts Êlea’s voice front and center as the grounding piece for the song, while the instrumentation shifts from somber synths to electric guitars, provided by guest E. Rustad of Knokkelklang. The thematic centerpiece of the album actually comes in the form of twin closing tracks “Elm” and “Elm II,” which directly reference Plath’s eponymous poem. Êlea’s voice here shifts from melodious and poignant to something much more sinister. Instead of singing, she whispers almost cruelly, almost right into your ears, reciting poetry over more gentle acoustics. On “Elm II,” the backing shifts in tone to more ambient atmospheric drones, until the album slowly concludes, hinting at the permanent end that befell Plath soon after her “Elm” was finished.
On Elm, Êlea and NOÊTA have shown that they deserve a place among all the frankly wonderful dark ambient folk that is out there. At least to my knowledge, never before has there been such a wealth of female voices getting the overdue recognition they deserve, and even among that strong company NOÊTA stand out by doing their own thing. Elm is a unique listening experience that should mark this band as one to watch out for. Let’s hope NOÊTA don’t go unappreciated in their own time.