The Balustrade Ensemble: Capsules

Disinterested: Behind Us

Halou: Wholeness & Separation

The still relatively young Dynamophone label reminds me a little bit of Type when it started out. Every release issued by Type founders John Xela and Stefan Lewandowski was of the highest quality, a standard the two have managed to uphold since the label's inception. In the Dynamophone catalogue assembled to date, Evan Sornstein (aka Curium) has accomplished something much the same, and new releases by Halou, The Balustrade Ensemble, and Disinterested do nothing but keep that batting average high.

Halou's Wholeness and Separation naturally sits comfortably alongside R/R Coseboom's lustrous Beneath Trembling Lanterns, with Ryan and Rebecca Coseboom constituting two-thirds of Halou and Mikael ‘Count' Eldridge the final piece. On the basis of the two albums, Halou's sound is the harder-edged of the two, with songs like “Honeythief,” “Today,” and “Everything Is OK” inhabiting a haunting, heavy, and sometimes desperate trip-hop space that, inevitably, invites comparisons to Portishead. “Stonefruit,” on the other hand, presents a guitar-fueled attack of the sort one might hear on a Lali Puna or Ms. John Soda album, while “Wholeness” roars so harrowingly it verges on post-punk. Wholeness and Separation, the first album from the San Francisco-based trio since 2001's Wiser, includes fourteen songs, so there's ample room for contrasts of mood and style. The quieter songs not only provide contrast to the louder ones but, frankly, also appeal more for enabling their swooning melodies and lush arrangements to be better heard. In one of the collection's strongest songs, the romantic languor of “The Ratio of Freckles to Stars” is boosted by graceful melodies and Rebecca's hushed vocalizing. Though the balance tips slightly towards Beneath Trembling Lanterns to these ears, there's no denying that Halou invests all of Wholeness and Separation's electroacoustic material with passion.

On Behind Us, Trespassers William guitarist Matt Brown dons his Disinterested guise for a second album of gorgeous shoegaze-ambient guitar settings. Though Brown generally works alone, it's telling that one guest is none other than celebrated ‘jazz' guitarist Bill Frisell since Brown, like Frisell, is an innovator open to the sonic possibilities offered by effects pedals and other equipment. How lovely it is to hear the two entwining six-string fragments over a flickering base in the slow-burning meditation “Blankets.” Behind Us is always heavily atmospheric and often melancholy, with “I Wish It Was the 90's,” a pensive setting of graceful guitar peals, perhaps the album's most beautiful piece, though lovely moments of stately grandeur also emerge during “Dissonance” and “What You Wanted.” Some of the material is close in spirit to Manual, whether it be dramatic shoegaze (“Last”) or widescreen ambient (“Behind Us,” “Sunnydayafter”), while the shuddering intro in “January” will remind some listeners of Klimek. Mention should also be made of guest Anna-Lynne Williams whose delicate murmur nicely enhances “Felt Leaves.” If there's one puzzling thing about the project, it's Brown's choice of alias: Behind Us sounds anything but disinterested.

As satisfying as the other two are, The Balustrade Ensemble's Capsules may be the most captivating of the three recordings. Guitarist and composer Grant Miller fronts the ensemble which includes accompanist Scott Solter, singer Wendy Allen, pianist Liam Singer, cellist Rich Vaughan, pedal steel player Ryan Rosenberg, and keyboardist Matt Henry Cunitz. The album's ten deeply ethereal settings conjure Victorian-styled universes where music boxes, rickety keyboards (mellotron, orchestron, claviola, celeste), and strings re-animate the nightmarish current burbling below the surface of the Grimm brothers' folk-tales. Add elements of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and The Brothers Quay to the mix and you're in the vicinity of The Balustrade Ensemble's curiosity shop and its cluttered shelves of perfectly-modeled figurines and weathered timepieces. Titles like “The Drowning Calm” and “The Museums of Sleep” offer some hint of the music's enveloping, even seductive, character. In pieces like “Fall Away Into Darkness,” one feels as if one has stumbled upon an oasis at the center of the darkening forest. The Balustrade Ensemble believes “listening need not be difficult to be compelling,” and its thoroughly engrossing Capsules is certainly proof of that.

October 2007