Balmorhea: Clear Language
Western Vinyl

Five years on from Balmorhea's last full-length Stranger, Rob Lowe and Michael Muller, the group's co-founders, return with Clear Language, as satisfying a collection of Balmorhea material as long-time listeners might have hoped for. Some natural degree of soul-searching transpired during that half-decade, so much so that the Austin, Texas-based duo couldn't help but contemplate the status of the project and question whether it had anything more to offer. To help answer the question, the two reentered their Church House Studios in Austin armed with thirty-plus ideas and hopeful that something of significance might develop. Abetted by Aisha Burns (violin, viola) and using analog synthesizers, piano, vibraphone, guitars (electric and bass), and field recordings (trumpeter Ephraim Owens and drummer Wim Coppers also appear on one track), Lowe and Muller created ten stirring productions that stand with the group's best.

The title track reestablishes the group's penchant for elegant restraint with a combination of quietly majestic piano melodies and elegiac string flourishes, the arrangement in toto reminding us that Balmorhea's better regarded as a contemporary chamber group than electronic or post-rock outfit. Compared to earlier releases, Clear Language's mellower, though not in a way that's off-putting. A delicately rendered setting such as “Sky Could Undress” seduces in assembling its drum machine, vibes, guitar, and string elements in a way that's distinctly Balmorhean. Here and elsewhere, the word painterly applies for the circumspect manner by which each instrument detail has been selected and added to the compositional frame. Still, as mellow as the album often is, it's not without an aggressive moment or two, as indicated by the brief tumult that surfaces near the end of “Slow Stone,” and a few episodes of tremolo twang and E-bow (e.g., “55”) add further dimensions to the album's expansive template.

Certainly one of the album's strongest aspects is its arrangements, but Lowe and Muller also show themselves to be adept melodicists. The melancholy themes Owens' muted trumpet voices in “Slow Stone,” for example, brand themselves fast upon one's memory, so much so that the patterns resound in one's head long after the tune's done. Clear Language is also refreshingly free of gratuitous embellishment and indulgence. It's not uncommon for a track to feature a single instrument (see the slow-burning guitar atmospherics of “Ecco” or graceful piano meditation “Waiting Itself”) or for an instrument to make a single appearance on the album (a hushed wordless vocal within “First Light,” for instance).

An ambient guitar texture gently soars through the backdrop of “Dreamt” in a way that invites comparison to Hammock, but for the most part Balmorhea inhabits its own highly individualized chamber zone. The group has received no shortage of acclaim during its eleven-year tenure, yet when the superior quality of its output is considered it's hard not to think the band's been underappreciated. In a better world, Clear Language would right that wrong, even if the argument could be made that flying under the radar has worked more in the group's favour, creatively speaking, than against it.

November 2017