The worst part about freezing to death would be the sheer boredom. You’d lose feeling throughout your body well before unconsciousness set in, and all you’d be able to see — if you even could open your eyes — would be snow and ice. Nothing but dentist’s-office numbness and blank-paper whiteness until the inevitable finally arrived.
That, if anything, is the lesson of The Instinct, the frigid sophomore release by indie-rock quartet Denali, out since August on Jade Tree. Lead vocalist and songwriter Maura Davis boasts a lovely, classically trained voice that nearly deserves its frequent comparisons to Beth Gibbons of Portishead, and her band, led by brother Keeley, shows similar skill in building intricate rock soundscapes around her. But like so many polished musicians before her, Davis can’t seem to write a single memorable song. The Instinct isn’t a bad record, especially if you like your music a tad frost-bitten; it’s just boring.
Consider Denali the anti-emo. In 2002, Jade Tree needed to sign a group that would help disassociate it from the movement it had helped spawn, or else risk being lumped in with newly whiny pop-punk bands aping “emo” for MTV to the point of self-parody.
Enter Denali. The band takes its name from Alaska’s Denali National Park, and though the official bio claims the group formed in Richmond, Virginia, it’s much easier to picture Denali’s music rising out of a glacier in the Arctic — someplace very beautiful and very, very cold.
“Too many sensations now,” Davis proclaims on opener “Hold Your Breath”. “No one feels like I do,” she adds one track later. But frankly, it’s hard to imagine her feeling anything
The Instinct mostly departs from the trip-hop electronics of the band’s self-titled debut, instead favoring an angular, atmospheric guitar attack that might be a bit “warmer” — Jade Tree’s website insists that is — but in the same way that Alaska is probably warmer than the North Pole. The new album sounds like someone took Pretty Girls Make Graves, gave them downers, and replaced their lead vocalist Andrea Zollo with Barbra Streisand (no, seriously — see the soaring chorus on Denali’s “Nullaby”).
“Normal Days” recalls the Jeff Buckley no one wants to remember — the one whose bombastic vocals occasionally masked a difficulty writing melodies. “Real Heat” is a stomping, Gothic march with little warmth, real or otherwise. The sometimes jagged, sometimes swirling guitar and keyboard riffs throughout the album showcase well-studied technique, but after they glide by, they leave nothing tangible to grasp.
If the album has a theme, it takes vague shape in the title track, a tale about a dehumanizing sexual relationship — cold as ice and equally fragile. “I will be with you only for a while / That’s all I can take,” Davis sings amid lyrics that at times get lost in her displays of virtuosity. “Moving slowly in the dark / Eyes can be open or shut,” she adds on the subsequent song, “Do Something”, concluding, “All I am now / Fall far away down”.
T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” it’s not, but at least it shows that the album’s wintry emotional distance is a result of misguided intentions rather than just poor execution. Still whatever The Instinct was aiming for, it didn’t hit it: Most of the lyrics are as unremarkable as the ones quoted above, further robbing the record of any human resonance.
When the snow blows over, Denali clearly has the brains and the chops to make a solid album. All they need is something interesting to say. In the meantime, wait until January, when you can get the full Denali experience by sitting outside for a few hours.