Singer and guitarist Marissa Nadler tends to stay in a sort of sonic shadow with a ghostly quality to her folk music. Thus far, this has been a beautiful place for her to linger, vaporous to the point of weightlessness, a sort of dreamy analogue of Chelsea Wolfe for the more acoustic scene. Singer and guitarist Stephen Brodsky, on the other hand, is best known for projects with a little more heft and noise – Old Man Gloom, Cave In, Mutoid Man, New Idea Society.
On Droneflower, their styles come together in a ten-track negotiation of soft smoke and gritty edge that tends toward the unpredictable. Nadler’s airiness keeps her afloat in Brodsky’s whirlpools of fuzz, and his tendency toward pleasing dissonance gives her a ground to push against as she rises upward. In common between them is an affinity for a darker palette, and that foundation is a solid basis for their musical experiments.
Those experiments begin with “Space Ghost I”, an introductory track both minimal and cinematic, constructing an atmosphere that fills its empty spaces with Nadler’s wafting voice and instrumental echoes – in this case, of drifting piano keys. We land from the ether solidly into the ominous bassline of “For the Sun”. Here, Nadler stands on the brink of feverish howls, but never steps off the edge, and her performance is all the more intriguing for the power she shows in restraint.
“Watch the Time” sees gentle downward spirals of guitar take the foreground over some of Nadler’s most ethereal vocal lines, and it makes for a warm bittersweetness. In the midst of indulgent melancholia, this is a much-needed break that allows its audience to fall with a cleansed aural palate into lush interlude “Space Ghost II”, another piece ready for a hypothetical period horror film.
The first track the duo recorded together on the album is “Dead West”, a song structured more like a typical Marissa Nadler ballad, but bejeweled with sharper moments of electric guitar – embellishments that reflect Brodsky’s influence. A cover follows of Guns N’ Roses’ dramatic “Estranged”. They slow it down, of course, and shift it from its original emotional hues of searing heartbreak to icier grief, creating a dirge that becomes more and more majestic over a mournful seven and a half minutes. Organ sounds contrast with fuzzy guitar grit, which contrasts with unplugged strumming and solemnly jingling percussion. Keeping it from being too weighty are layers of vocal harmonies that give the end of the song a burst of cool light to carry it through.
Afloat is where the album stays, on four more tracks that, for the most part, exist detached, in a melodic zero gravity. The album ends on a final cover, Morphine’s “In Spite of Me”, a perfect thematic encapsulation of the balance between yearning and realism that characterizes Nadler’s work. Here, the fog that is so prevalent throughout Droneflower clears, and subtle brass (saxophone from Morphine member Dana Colley, no less) adds a touch of tempered hope to finish the work.
If Droneflower has a weakness, it is that it goes in many directions, and opens up so many doors that Brodsky and Nadler do not have time to investigate in a single release thoroughly. These are two artists who have found remarkable common ground not in spite of their stylistic differences, but because those differences are so serendipitously complementary. Droneflower not only leaves me wanting more but confident that there is much more to grow from Brodsky and Nadler’s communal sonic garden.