October 30, 2003
DENALI [I]THE INSTINCT[/I] REVIEW RATING: 7.2
Denali wisely journeyed beyond the dusted Southern geography of their home state when choosing an appellation. By referencing the Alaskan hinterland, the Richmond, Virginia quartet connects itself to 6,000,000+ acres of Denali National Park, a sub-arctic ecosystem that includes Mount McKinley along with a bunch of frostbitten grizzly bears. Like listening to the earliest Codeine while mired in a snowstorm, this vast chunk of ice, mountains, and large mammals is the apt environmental backdrop for the nine dramatically sweeping songs on The Instinct, Denali's follow-up to their self-titled debut.
In spite of these references to cold things, Denali are most addictive when gritting their collective teeth and churning out a tapestry of jarring guitars, heavy bass, complex percussion rhythms, and synthesizer harmonics. The lynchpin operatic ballast of guitarist and keyboardist Maura Davis remains the critical focus, but her band solidly provides an ideal cushion for a vocal style that could grow obnoxious within a more staid or less fitting context. Evoking a cleaner PJ Harvey with zero Galas bluster (is that a female Thom Yorke? A 4AD diva?), Davis hits the high notes and tackles her vocal lines with aplomb. While her voice is impressive, she doesn't have much of a story to tell. This works well enough if she's taken as another instrument in the dense sonic squall, but once the lyric sheet comes out of hiding, well, uh, um.
Including a fair share of these revved-up glacial formations, The Instinct shows a promising turn towards heavier, denser slices of chamber-rock. Davis's older brother, bassist/keyboardist Keeley Davis, is in Engine Down with drummer Jonathan Fuller, who earlier played in old-school chaos makers Sleepytime Trio. Rounding out the lineup is journeyman guitarist Cam DiNunzio of Four Walls Falling and a dozen other east coast floor-punching acts. With these guys in tow, a certain heaviness lurks within the trip-hop: tracks like "Hold Your Breath" and "Surface" initiate insouciant percussive breaks and rock-up dynamics similar to the work of Girls Against Boys or old timey London-based Touch & Go heavies, Silverfish ("Hips Tits Lips Power!").
"Surface", meanwhile, fixates around a stealthy bassline, dual-channel percussion separations, and a multi-layered careening guitar: during the final distorted vocal exchange, Davis' not especially interesting lyrics come off like holy writ because of where they're placed in the mix. To his credit, Peter Katis, who recorded other frosted bands like Interpol and Mercury Rev, sustains this well-chosen lushness for the album's duration, creating a site in which dappled arpeggios and aquatic notes pulse and flow three-dimensionally.
When forging ahead with pretty disjunctions, Denali offer a solid take on a less traversed genre; as the band nods-off to dumbed-down Portishead-styled atmospherics, the propulsion dissipates. Bits like "Run Through", "Nullaby", and "Welcome" could make for fair-to-decent background music, but each lacks the payoff of the other work. Despite the production and sonic sweep, this is a standard rock band working within an oft-stated, faux-experimental dream-pop realm. For actual extended grooves and smacked-out excursions, I'd rather tap the epic drones of the Kompakt roster, Ellen Allien, or maybe just record the wind at Mount McKinley and see if it sounds at all like I think it would.
October 30th, 2003
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