PROBABLY the first thing to note about the luscious Balmorhea, who are poised to release their seventh studio album in 14 years through Deutsche Grammophon this week, is how to pronounce it: I for one had been getting it wrong all this time, finding myself in somewhat of a desert of aficionados of the leftfield, experimental American music; yep it’s always me that brings Bing & Ruth and Stars of the Lid and Rachel’s to the party. Stifle the groans, there. We have extremely mellow parties.
Anyhow, just to save you the social faux pas of rhyming it with something far less savoury, the duo of Rob Lowe and Michael A. Muller, whose particular take on the modern compositional form nods to the American West, pronounce it of bal-more-ray; as indeed do others, since it’s a name of a city in Reeves County, TX, pop: 479. Good. Let’s move on.
When they formed in 2006, Rob and Michael brought a really interesting mélange of influences to table, some with a clear sight line into their recorded work (John Cage, Rachel’s, Arvo Pärt); some more subtle and intriguing, such as Tortoise and Gillian Welch.
They ply an evocative style where every note has its place, eschewing maximalism, but also very much more concerned with fluvial melody than the cyclical repetition and drone that minimalism often espouses. We can indeed use terms like pastoral and delicate, nuanced and layered; and we’d be right to, since they are pretty much masters of this, honing a craft that springs from their shared practise, and also bringing in various other musicians as the palette demands.
There’s been six albums, one live album and one remixes set since 2007; mostly for Western Vinyl, with whom they had a long and productive relationship up until their last album, 2017’s Clear Language.
The Wind, the album we’re concerned with herein, sees them move label -indeed, continent – over to Deutsche Grammophon, which of course released Max Richter’s Sleep, thus admitting the new classical to the hallowed canon of the label universally regarded as industry standard in the field. This release, then, is implicitly an accolade.
It comprises a dozen tracks, inspired by meditations on the natural world and its fragility, an ancient tale of a saint who carried the wind to an airless French valley, and thoughts of climate activist Greta Thunberg crossing the Atlantic on the catamaran La Vagabonde.
It also marks a return to Balmorhea’s original set-up; and charts a journey through a soundscape touched by echoes of prayer flags flapping in a Himalayan breeze, an old harmonium, a pipe organ, wind chimes, a trio of double basses, all informing the main thrust of guitar and piano instrumental journeying.
Rob and Michael, who both hail from Austin, actually first crossed paths and made music at a summer camp in the hills. They continued this nascent sonic dialogue upon returning to the state capital, soon creating a meshing of guitar and piano that for them, captured the mountains and rugged scenery of their home state.
The group gradually evolved, swelled, took in other fellow travellers on this musical journey; an intense five years of recording, touring, touring again and the decision of some members to leave the Lone Star State saw the pair stripped back to their core once more – hence the tabula rasa, the rebirth on a new label.
“As so often in life, the best things seem to happen organically without forcing them into place,” says Rob.
“You can spend so much time and energy hunting for opportunities, but we came to Deutsche Grammophon naturally through personal introductions. We’re deeply honoured and thrilled to join such an incredible institution.”
The genesis of The Wind itself comes from ideas forged at at the Lowe family house by the River Llano, about two hours from Austin. “We took advantage of the space and began by talking about our dreams and what we wanted to achieve,” Michael recalls.
“We were able to write for combinations of instruments that weren’t part of our larger group and bring different voices into the new work. For instance, we thought, wouldn’t it be fun to write a piece for harmonium and pipe organ – we had the freedom to do that.” (And that is a rather lovely moment on the album, just touching upon Bing & Ruth’s mournful aesthetic.)
“The Wind was a product of retreat,” adds Rob. “It was about leaving the city to work in a remote location and having access only to what we could create together.
“I think that necessitated the stripped-back nature of the music we made, which is ultimately what we wanted.
“Mike and I have been working together for nearly 15 years. We certainly knew we needed to create some space in the Balmorhea project to prevent ourselves from burning out and were fortunate to be able to do that.
Those first seeds were sown in summer 2018, so not so long after Clear Language. “I think we were trying to recapture a certain simplicity and human interaction between the two of us,” Rob comments.
The connection between the pair was as strong as ever, initial sessions proved. Rob recalls: “One of us would have an idea, record a demo on a phone and share it, then we’d choose the ones that resonated most strongly with each of us.
“Around five pieces on The Wind came from a straight 50-50 collaboration of being in the room with piano and guitar or two guitars and working together.
“On the other hand, Rob was warming up on the piano one morning at the river house and playing simple chords. ‘Keep playing while I get the mics,’ I said. That ended up being the first song on the album.”
Near the end of writing Rob discovered a translation of the Otia imperialia, a 13th-century compendium detailing marvels and miracles. He was drawn to the tale of “The wind which St Caesarius shut up in a glove”, in which the archbishop of Arles carries the sea breeze to a desolate valley and releases it to make the place “fruitful and healthy”.
“I felt it was a resonant metaphor for the music we created,” he says. “I don’t want to go too much deeper into it, because we feel the music does the work of expression. But the wind stands here for renewal.”
“Day Dawns In Your Right Eye” nudges into life in the susurration and hush of some cityscape, drifting in through the window, and allows you the time to pick up the gentle sway of piano resonance, that environment bedding joined by other tonal song; so far so pretty, but the French-language recitation, itself a mere breath, gentle, seizes the hour. Imagine Henrik Lindstrand jamming with Jane Birkin in some downtown bar after hours, rapt, alone. The reading is given by Los Angeles artist Lili Cuzor, and is a passage from a reads extracts from a French translation of Otia imperialia, as noted above. (It’s Lili that graces the closing track, too.)
“Rose In Abstract” begins with the woody throat of Nils Frahm’s very own pump organ, which was in the Berlin studio were the album was committed to tape; that deep European pastoralism shifts into a passage of measured piano chords, then strings rising on their own melodic thermals for a view from above, courtesy the cello of 130701’s Clarice Jansen, a potent composer in her own right. It’s a pocket symphony, propelling through moods, currents shifting; now more shadowed, an electric singing tonality emerging towards the end.
“La Vagabonde” has a dawn rurality, a simple two-chord glissando smoothing the path for horns to take the top melody. There really is a whole landscape in this, skies, rivers. It’s pretty much a straight classical piece, with the experimenta in a supporting role deep within the sound; and it’s very lovely, clean-lined.
“Landlessness” begins as a study in classical guitar, and I will always, always refer back to Maurice Deebank of Felt at such junctures, since it was he who pulled formalised instrumental guitar studies towards the world of alternative music aback when recontextualised them, made them new and cool and fresh. There’s just a little of him in this, though I won’t claim derivation; he’s just my touchstone. It rings open and beautiful and true.
“Evening” is well named; and cor, every living creak of that piano is captured, every click, every pedal depression. I’m guessing it’s been prepared to some degree, so gorgeously clacky is it. Leave the curtains open and watch the night fall with this your soundtrack. And, actually, its perfectly joined antecedent, “The Myth”, which also rings with intimate six strings, building to a concert of horns that puts me in mind of Mogwai, of all people, circa Stanley Kubrick. It’s the amazing voice of Lisa Morgenstern, the bravest, truest vocalist working in leftfield music today, who appears towards the end; and who also lends the piano-led “V” such incredible power, both so very human and so otherworldly all at once.
“Ne Plus Ultra” is another pastoral guitar essay, intimate with the squeak of an instrument brought lovingly to play. If you ever fell for the Scandinavian outfit ASS, you’ll find an awful, awful lot to appreciate about this. “Nos” is the cutest of piano melodies, again folksy, and could frankly last an awful lot longer than it does and not outstay its welcome. This, and the preceding track, have that illusion of sweet simplicity that can only come with a very precise knowledge of music. Try it at home, I dares ya.
“Vent Pontian” is a heavily plosive texture, the reports of prayer flags braided into a strong wind; the real world excerpted, a little entry for “The Crush”, which rings strong and steely in piano, a muscular motif full of atmosphere, cello understudying with other atmospheres that draw you down within.
We turn to the exit in “Night Falls In Your Left”, which has the ominous ring and power of the former; that particular wave of tension easing periodically, a little piano figure in pirouette with guitar drone play, slipping over the edge into a surging and sustained discordancy. Which releases you wonderfully as the piano steps on, resolves back to the main theme. It’s like watching massive thunderheads darken a sky, the mercurial eddies of wind dragging them this way and then that; you’re at the edge of a darker clime, just within the sun’s rays. And then, then, Lili Cuzor returns to caress with her final reading, hushing you to be still in closing, whispered French hagiography; dulcet.
What sets Balmorhea and The Wind apart from much of the current discourse in the field of experimental post-classical is the movement across the instrumental palette available that it entertains. Many artists working in this area, and no criticism at all levelled, like to set up a sonic conceit, explore it to the hilt; the difference within the sameness, if you will. And the adept enthrall with that brief.
Balmorhea draw a line back in the tradition to the much-missed Louisville, KY outfit Rachel’s, who opted to take an idea and use whichever instrumental mix they found brought out the best of what they wished to convey. And The Wind roams freely and with precision across a spectrum from formal classical through a more pastoral take on the form and all the way out to ambient experimentalism, spoken word, found sound, with a unity and cohesion. It’s just a lovely, thoughtful record; complex in its simplicity.
Balmorhea’s The Wind will be released by Deutsche Grammophon digitally, on CD and 2xLP on April 9th; you can place an order for your copy direct with the band, over at Deutsche Grammophon, or from your neighbourhood record store.