Nilch’i by Swartz Et (Review)

Inspired by Navajo culture and spirituality, these six ambient pieces are filled with otherworldly drones recorded in the Utah desert.
Nilch'i - Swartz et

Steve Swartz has come a long way since his work with dreampop/slowcore outfit Au Revoir Borealis back in the ’00s. (For what it’s worth, 2008’s Dark Enough for Stars still comes with my highest recommendation.)

But as atmospheric as Au Revoir Borealis could get, Swartz’s own solo recordings — all released under the “Swartz et” moniker — have grown even more so, be it the soft, nocturnal drones on 2010’s Nighttide or the modular synths on 2020’s Light Leaks. With its drifting synth tones, Nilch’i feels like the apotheosis of Swartz’s various ambient excursions and explorations to date.

Taking its name from the Navajo word for “wind,” it should come as no surprise that Nilch’i’s six songs were improvised and performed on a single synth in the middle of the Utah desert. But don’t let that mislead you. Too often, “desert” music seems to equate to “inspired by Morricone,” but as much as I enjoy a good spaghetti western-inspired riff, you’ll hear no such thing on Nilch’i — or any sort of riff, for that matter. And though it’s influenced by Navajo culture and spirituality, you won’t hear any chants or the sort of faux-Native instrumentation that pops up on cheesy New Age CDs.

Rather, the atmospherics that Swartz has put to tape here are pure drone, which allows these songs to be as evocative as they are. Nilch’i conjures up the first light of the desert sun as it peeks over the horizon, the swirling and gathering of dust in barren places, the shifting of colors across the rocks and dunes as the sun arcs high overhead, the deceptive shimmer of mirages, and so on. At the same time, there’s an otherworldliness to Swartz’s drones that isn’t necessarily ominous, but definitely alien — as if the desert landscapes conjured up by these six pieces can’t be found on this planet, or even this plane of existence.