Balmorhea – Stranger – 95%

I first found out about Balmorhea sometime last year, thanks to the Post-Rock & Beyond room on turntable.fm, and have been absolutely hooked since then. This seven piece band from Austin, TX (what are they putting in the water there?) takes something of a more minimalist approach to the post-rock genre, and they absolutely nail it. There’s so much more to what they do than the standard post-rock band that it’s unfair to just pigeon hole them into the genre – they’re best described as simply an instrumental band, honestly. They incorporate so many instruments that you don’t often see used in post-rock (banjo, steel drums, melodica), and do so with great success. Couple this with their frequent use of strings (the band counts a violinist and double bass player amongst their ranks), and you have something that really stands out from the fray.

‘Stranger’ is their eight release, which in itself is an impressive number, given that they’re such a large band and put out their first release in 2007. To understand the band a little, you need to take a look at influences. Not just musical, as those are the easy ones to pick out, but the influence behind the name. Balmorhea is a little town in west Texas, with a population of less than 500 in an area of less than half a square mile. I’ve driven past Balmorhea, and trust me, it’s pretty isolated. The kind of town that would afford you a spectacular view of the night sky in the desert. Now, you have a bit of an understanding of the idea behind the band. In fact, their last release, ‘Constellations’, pretty much hit that beautiful, isolated, night sky feeling right on the head.

This album is not nearly as sparse as ‘Constellations’, as the band seems to turn their focus back to more earthly influences. The opening track, “Days”, is a sublimely beautiful song, and still has me wondering if some of the background noises at the beginning are instruments or birds chirping. The steel drums in this track are wonderful, and you really can’t help but smile hearing them. It fades out blissfully, and plays perfectly into the following song, “Masollan”. The first half of the song is a beautiful orchestration of guitar, strings, and piano, and when the drums and bass join in around the 2:30 second mark, they fit in perfectly with the rest of the instruments. Absolutely nothing feels out of place here, and Balmorhea continues to prove themselves to be on top of the game when it comes to these type of tracks.

One of the most cinematic moments on the record is the third track, “Fake Fealty”. From the string intro, to the distorted electric guitar joined by the double bass, everything here is done with great effect. You can really imagine this song being used in a scene in a film, and it’s a damn good scene. As pretentious as it might sound, Balmorhea is definitely a band that you experience and feel, rather than just listen to. “Dived” is such a rush of pure joy, that it produces something of a butterflies-in-your-stomach, first kiss sort of sensation. Up next is “Jubi”, one of the easiest song to pull the isolated American Southwest feeling from. Not that it’s a lonely sounding song at all, it’s incredibly peaceful, and has just enough of a twang in the guitars to bring to mind that region of the country. If you’ve spent any time in that area, the vocals near the end may very well remind you of echoing voices in a canyon, it’s a surreal feeling, and is almost ghostly.

The main riff in “Artifact” gives the song a bit of a mathy feel, and the first half of the track really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album. Not that it’s bad, it’s just a little too chaotic for the overall feel, I think. The heavy use of effects on the second half of the song give it a dreamy, almost shoegaze sound, which is really interesting when paired with the piano. It’s a nice touch, but the first half of the track still makes this song the sore thumb on the album for me. “Shore”, however, is probably the most beautiful song on the album. The title is very appropriate, as the song creates a wonderful soundscape, transporting the listener to a peaceful, remote lake shore. It’s really, really well done, and is a shining example of how well Balmorhea can create a scene through music. The feeling carries over a bit to “Pyrakantha”, but after about 3 minutes, things pick up a little and the serene mood gets a bit more energetic, almost like the sun breaking through a cloud cover. It ends with a celebration feeling, fitting for the picture the song paints.

After the brief (and aptly titled) “Islet”, the album closes with “Pilgrim”. Fittingly enough, this song carries a sense of exploration and discovery with it, like setting your eyes on a new land for the first time. It’s hopeful, dramatic, and beautiful, much like the rest of the album. This band continues to amaze me with every release, progressively getting more and more awe-inspiring. For me, this is definitely one of the top releases of the year. The creative minds behind Balmorhea truly know how to compose a great song, and do so with the kind of cinematic flair that I absolutely adore.

Available for $10 in MP3 format on Amazon

Available for $12 on CD or $25 for 2X LP on Big Cartel

Band website can be found hereĀ