Listening to the self-titled debut from the New York City-based four-piece NYMPH is prompting thoughts on improvisation, on dynamics, and on the role of the studio in channeling both. NYMPH is a five-song album bookended by two lengthy pieces: the 11-minute “Il-Yo” and the 22-minute “Namu.” Composer Matty McDermott and vocalist Eri Shoji are each credited with a number of instruments on the album, and over the course of these five pieces, the overall feel shifts from driving and percussive to quieter and jazzy, with explorations of space a priority. And yet it’s the points at which NYMPH is at its most focused that its debut is at its most compelling.
The textured “Bird Song” and “Snow Song,” both of which are relatively brief by the album’s standards, represent the strongest distillation of NYMPH’s strengths. “Snow Song” finds Shoji’s vocals in a breathy yet agitated mode, hesitant and aggressive, darting around McDermott’s terse, bottomed-out guitar amidst a taut, minimal drumbeat. “Bird Song” emerges with one of the album’s more contemplative melodies, a blissed-out section that wouldn’t be out of place on, say, Sir Richard Bishop’s The Freak of Araby. From there, the melody shifts, allowing a tension to creep in even as Shoji’s vocals suggest a turn toward bliss. Its stylistic shifts explore ambiguous emotions, making their way into the unexpected spaces between moods.
The album’s longer pieces are less compelling in their entirety. “Namu” begins by welding a winding guitar melody atop a stripped-down drumbeat, as Shoji contributes wordless vocals in time with the percussion. When the song is in this mode, the group’s dynamics lead to something immensely rewarding, but it eventually gives way to a more repetitive, less enticing guitar-and-drum trade-off. And “Il-Yo,” the opener, has a seemingly improvised pace, with Scott Murchinson’s crisp drumming providing the standout element. Though its progression is ultimately more dynamic, it also has a tendency to lose its momentum without providing a comparable alternative.
Some of these criticisms of NYMPH may stem from the gulf between recording and live performance. Explorations that may be fascinating in a performance space don’t necessarily click when in the studio. The least compelling moments of NYMPH are the most restrained; it’s entirely possible that in the live setting, their evolution is much more dynamic. This document of their music, however, stands in an uneven space, the momentum and complexity of its most gripping moments too fleeting to carry the way.