Until last year, when they released All is Wild, All is Silent, Balmorhea was a duo that had released two albums of instrumental music that, while very good, was so low-key that it sounded as though it would work best as incidental music on a film soundtrack. On All is Wild, All is Silent, they tried something new: They wrote a collection of songs meant to evoke the opening of the American frontier, with symphonic swells and instrumentation reminiscent of the time. They also expanded their line-up, adding four musicians to the original line-up of Michael Muller and Rob Lowe. It was one of the better albums of last year, although still something of a sleeper.
Nevertheless, quite a few more people outside of their native Austin, Texas (like me, for instance) were waiting for their follow-up album, Constellations. Now down to five members, Balmorhea remains just as ambitious, although Constellations unfolds in a way that requires a little more patience than All is Wild, All is Silent. The earlier album led off with “Settler,” a sweeping song built around piano and violin figures that immediately brought to mind dusty, cinemascope vistas. The theme wasn’t too difficult to grasp after that. Constellations is nominally a song-cycle about cosmology and the place of the world in the vast universe. The album alternates between spare songs that, much like Balmorhea’s first two albums, feature primarily piano and acoustic guitar, and a more dramatic set of songs that, judging from titles like “Bowsprit,” “Herons,” and “Steerage and the Lamp,” were written around the metaphor of a ship at sea. So, for instance, at the beginning of the album the measured pace of “To the Order of Night” gives way to the swirling five-piece arrangements of “Bowsprit,” which then turns back to the meditative “Winter Circle,” a song featuring only piano and voice (as with their previous albums, Balmorhea experiments with vocals, although there are no lyrics on the album).
Constellations does not have the immediacy of All is Wild, All is Silent, and for that reason it might surprise those who were expecting a similar follow-up album. But part of what was so enjoyable about All is Wild, All is Silent is how unexpected it was in the first place, and such a pronounced departure for the band. Constellations, while not as much of a surprise, is no less pleasant.