Balmorhea : The Wind

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Saint Caesarius was a sixth century Archbishop of the French city of Arles. Though not a man of great fame, his common touch made him beloved by the people of the region and he garnered an almost mythic reputation as a man of miracles. In one tale, a valley in the region is in the grips of terrible drought, its people hungry and the land parched and fruitless. Caesarius travels to the ocean, where he captures the sea breeze in his glove and carries it to the stricken land. Here he releases the wind over the valley where it brings life, the land becoming renewed, fruitful and healthy. This ancient tale served as deep inspiration for The Wind, Balmorhea’s latest record, the wind as a symbol of renewal permeating the underlying themes and ideas down to its very title.

Recorded in Saal 3 of Berlin’s Funkhaus—famed as the musical home to friend of the band Nils Frahm—the Austin duo’s first release with Deutsche Grammophon finds them shorn of the ensemble cast they’ve assembled over the years. The result is a touch of minimalism that reflects the return to their founding origins as well as the isolation, felt the world over, that birthed the record. Diversity has always been Balmorhea’s strength, their work never being easy to pin down. It’s had touches of folksy Americana but they rarely sang, the instrumentation a little post-rock but without the histrionics, it’s peacefully stripped back but a little too busy to be ambient and the neoclassical elements that weave through it all were never strong enough to truly pull them into that sphere. Really it’s an enormous compliment to the band that they’ve managed to remain unique in the realm of instrumental music by staying true to their own inspiration.

The Wind, however, finds them fixating a little more on those classical elements. It feels appropriate, not only for their new setting and label’s reputation, but for the purpose of the record itself. It plays out as a reflection on the fragility of our natural world and our relationship with it, where a strain of microscopic pathogens can undermine entire societies and global catastrophic threats to climate stability and biodiversity continue unabated. As such the music is suitably fragile itself, crystalline, clinging to the spaces between and threatening to fracture at any moment. In keeping with the classical shift, the piano is the early hero here. Soft chords open the record on “Day Dawns in Your Right Eye”, slowly weaving the finest of webs beneath a voice gently reciting in French from Otia Imperiala. “Rose in Abstract” follows, slowly building from twinkling harmonised piano motifs into an achingly beautiful ascending cello line, subtle woodwind textures finely balancing the piece before it meekly fades out again.

The likes of Max Richter or Arvo Pärt are immediately brought to mind on one of the album’s finest tracks, “La Vagabonde”, as a steadily advancing piano line entwines with distant horn melodies to beautiful effect. It’s emblematic of how the record plays out more broadly, gorgeously worked string and choral arrangements dynamically colouring in instrumental sketches. It’s work that places them firmly in the realm of their minimalist and neoclassical inspirations, but the duo are sure to keep to their roots and this is where The Wind stands out. Tracks like “Landlessness” and “Ne Plus Ultra” are almost fully formed of gorgeously fingerpicked acoustic guitar that build on the ambient Americana they’ve become known for. It’s a technique used to truly moving effect in “The Myth”, where the heavenly vocals of Lisa Morgernstern—featured throughout—intertwine with the guitar patterns in an enchanting coalescence. 

If there’s any criticism to be had here, it’s that for an album that feels for all intents and purposes like a concept record, its flow doesn’t necessarily reflect that. The tracks themselves are gorgeous and complete, but don’t always lend themselves to continuity. It may be a symptom of the musical diversity they carry so well, or a reflection of the fragmented nature of their theme material, but either way it’s not enough to truly detract from what is a beautiful piece of work. The record leaves us with the sound of wind in flags and more soft spoken French samples, but only after the sanguine surging piano of “The Crush.” It feels a gentle reminder that brittle and fragile as is, this is also music that asks us to hold with us the essence within the tale of Saint Caesarius. With the wind comes renewal, and that sense of hope pervades everything here. That this is a process that takes time and the patience of allowing things to run their course. With The Wind, Balmorhea capture that essence, renewing valleys with music that thrives in its delicate and patient nature.

Label: Deutsche Grammofon

Year: 2021

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