Review by Paul Wheatley
Distance becomes relative in the expanse of barren land stretching for countless acres in all directions around Balmorhea. When you travel through this westernmost area of Texas, the scrubby hills and flat fields of brush begin to bleed together, causing time to almost stop. The rhythm of fence posts and lines dividing two-lane roads serves as one of the only indicators of speed or progress toward a destination in this corner of God’s creation where the lines between minimalist landscapes and maximalist grandeur overlap.
The six members of Balmorhea (pronounced Bal-moor-ay), an instrumental rock group based in Austin, are no strangers to this overlap. Throughout their discography, they have musically traced the outlines and contradictions of the area surrounding that Texas town, creating sprawling compositions that range from quiet, pensive guitar melodies to explosive crescendos of orchestral complexity.
In its fifth album, Stranger, Balmorhea expands the distance traversed in its previous works. All Is Wild, All Is Silent (2009) relied heavily on the interplay between acoustic guitar, banjo, violin, and cello to create musical moments evoking the West Texas expanse. Constellations (2010) raised its sights to the starry sky as piano and strings swelled above minimalist compositions more like Arvo Pärt than fellow Austinite instrumentalists Explosions in the Sky. Stranger launches through the stratosphere, bringing synths, voices, electric guitars, loops, xylophone, and even an occasional steel drum into the mix as Balmorhea charts heavier and more complex territory.
Time and distance characterized the recording of Stranger, as primary songwriters Rob Lowe and Michael Muller worked on the album’s songs at a distance from Alpine (60 miles south of Balmorhea) and Brooklyn, respectively, meeting in Chicago and Austin for studio recording. While this can cause disjunction in a group’s recordings, in the case of Stranger the distance has resulted in a more experimental sound that nevertheless retains the focus of the band’s earlier work.
“Pyrakantha” is probably the greatest outlier on the album, incorporating rhythmic loops that border on the danceable, along with guitar work that flirts with prog-rock complexity. However, “Artifact” could just as easily take the honors, delving into the use of loud, distortion-laden guitars, feedback, and other noise-rock elements at the midpoint of the song before dropping back to a melodic, piano-based second movement more reminiscent of previous compositions. “Massolan” and “Pilgrim” offer sounds that would be familiar to fans of Balmorhea’s back catalogue, but still show the band taking steps forward in songwriting and composition, without losing its well-known restraint.
Overall, Stranger bears repeated listening, and is worthy of consideration for its beauty and absolute defiance of genre classification. While the album’s more experimental moments — arising suddenly like West Texas thunderstorms — may strain the ears, they pass as quickly as they came, leaving behind gorgeous sonic blooms to be enjoyed as the musical scenery passes into the distance.
The Rev. Paul D. Wheatley, a 2012 graduate of Wycliffe College, Toronto, is a transitional deacon serving as associate minister for young adults, arts, and evangelism at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.