Almost as difficult to describe as their name is to pronounce, Austin sextet Balmorhea put on a phenomenal set on a showery Sunday night at Chicago’s Schubas. It’s pronounced ball-more-ay: unlike their music, it’s not as difficult as it first appears. The group is named after a town of 500, six hours west of Austin, home to a natural cold spring.
Now touring behind their newly released fifth full-length record, Stranger, the ensemble transported a rapt crowd into an atmosphere of awe and inspiration as they performed for a little more than an hour.
Although the sextet’s nearest sonic comparison might be fellow Austinites explosions in the sky, they successfully subvert the instrumental “post-rock” label by supplementing their twin guitar interplay with a string trio, and genre hopped from Phillip Glass-like meditations to minimalist space trips to jazzy excursions.
Schubas offers a small stage under the best of circumstances, but with six performers, two electric guitars, two keyboards, two acoustic guitars, an electric bass, a stand-up bass, cello, violin and full drum set, it was amazing they were able to navigate the stage at all. To gauge the complexity of their performance, one need look no further than the fact that they had their own sound person and their own separate sound board in order to keep track of it all.
Not only that, but at times it seemed like Nova Scotia’s Sloan were on stage, given the frequency with which they switched their instruments, but there was no power pop to be heard here tonight. In Balmorhea’s case, although the six members often simultaneously switched instruments in mid-song, it never seemed like they were showing off, it was all done to serve the elaborate compositions.
Balmorhea are more proof positive that music does provide a “reason for living” as rock critic Jim DeRogatis calls it. Although oftentimes it seems like everything in modern music has been done before, when you combine normally disparate elements into a cohesive whole, you end up with something all new.
Although they combine such tropes from the aforementioned Explosions, they’re like a more acoustic version of Mogwai, bring the rhyming guitars of Pell Mell, with the avant-garde neoclassicism (underscored by the strings) reminiscent of Phillip Glass but in a minimalistic John Cage channel. It’s no surprise to learn that Tortoise is one of the original duo’s chief original inspirations. How can such music be so fully fleshed out but minimalist at the same time? Therein lies the paradox that is Balmorhea.
They opened their performance with a whalloping thrum and exhibited a dynamite dynamic sense throughout their set. Over the course of a little over an hour they wove a rich tapestry of sonic guitar attacks, string crescendos and rhythmic intricacy that at first bothered, then bewitched and bewildered the hypnotized crowd (it’s no exaggeration to say that between songs, after the applause died down, one could hear a guitar pick drop).
Although it’s clear that the fulcrum of the ensemble is the pianist and ostensibly the lead guitarist Rob Lowe and the other half of the original duo, guitarist Michael Muller, it’s also clear that the rest of the group have significant contributions in the performance process.
The ensemble transports you so far from your earthly cares that everything else seems to melt away. Their performance rendered the rest of the world utterly mundane and drained of all color, and yet they created in the listener a new appreciation of the rich tapestry of life.
In less sincere hands, the music might have seemed a tad cheesy or showy (think Mannheim Steamroller, shudder), but with Balmorhea it seemed like, at least live, they were crafting something entirely new and different. True, source material or inspirations might include the aforementioned Pell Mell, math-rock innovators Polvo, perhaps the interlacing, busy guitars of Pinback. But between the upright bass, cello and violin, the rhyming guitars of the core duo and the elaborate rhythmic counterparts provided, it was clear that this was not something just crafted of Phillip Glass and Eric Johnson. It’s undeniable that the influence of jazz guitar and Glass are omnipresent within the approach of Balmorhea, but having said that, their songs never came across as wanky or self-indulgent.
Although the majority of their set was composed of songs from the new album, “Settler” from the earlier record All Is Wild, All Is Silent was a definite highlight, which not only featured vocals but a few actual lyrics. Other high point—and there were many—included the opening track to Stranger, “Days,” with its wordless a capella choruses, and “Jubi,” which integrated the siren song of the violinist into their beguiling and compelling mix.
In performance, their multilayered compositions were given the room to grow and soar, whereas on record they seem like mere kernels of ideas by comparison.
Listening to Balmorhea is like listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons if it was being hit by a fine mist and then getting hit by an F-5 tornado.
Even now 70 some odd years on into the history of rock, it’s heartening to hear that there are still new things to be done, new music to be made, more strands of this rich tapestry called life being woven together, even by a meek hexad on a damp October night.
Stranger is beautifully done, but it should not be put on in the background. Unless you fully immerse yourself in it, the music runs the risk of seeming like so much smooth jazz. There’s much more going on in their complex compositions than might seem so upon first listen.
They’re a group that really have to be experienced live to fully understand their philosophy and disciplined approach to their music, and live they were as tight as the horsehair on their bows.
During the set, Lowe mentioned that the last time they were in Chicago they drove from Texas to record two songs for the new album—let’s hope it won’t be so long before Balmorhea return.
Watch the latest video by Balmorhea, “Masollan”: