I am on a train travelling between Alberta and British Columbia. The distance between the Rocky Mountains is measured by the drumbeats of the debut album by nêhiyawak. The band’s name means Cree people — they hail from amiskwacîwâskahikan, or what is now known as Edmonton. Their ancestors are my ancestors. The album is called nipiy, which means water. Water is culturally interconnected to all life as well as to language, ceremony, and women. Marek Tyler, the band’s drummer, says: “Water has the quality of being in two places at once.”
The album itself exists between the two places: it was recorded in Victoria, a city Marek lived in for some years before returning home to Edmonton. It was in Edmonton that, during a family get together, he and his cousin, Kris Harper, began working on music together. The two cousins — Kris on guitar and vocals — sought out Matthew Cardinal, the bassist and synth player, who brought a steady, lulling intensity that has become integral to their sound.
The album — like its namesake — is ambient, intense and full of movement. Each track is different in that they evolve from one into another, each flowing into the next. The sound is honed and consistent, yet like staring at the same rock in a rippling stream over time, there is always something new to hear. Each song is complex, both lyrically and sonically, like a melodic winding journey. The opening and closing tracks of this record are timed to the running tempo of the North Saskatchewan River, and that sense of movement is prevalent throughout. Not only physical movement but across time, as Matthew’s dream pop synth is punctuated by Marek’s traditional hide drum sounds.
nipiy is an album that is immediately good, but not necessarily easy. The song’s subjects are often the voices not heard — Indigenous women and children who have been stolen, or the generations affected by the residential school system. In this album, the listener is pulled out of place and time and into an ebbing pool of eerie synth, drumbeats and storytelling. One is submerged into decades — even centuries — of Indigenous history. But there is also something irresistibly immediate about this music. The listener is left in the space between blue and green. The liminal space where music sounds its best.