As the resident rock and metal guy here, most of the shows I go to involve beer swilling tough guys, a dive atmosphere, and unimaginably loud bands that leave my ears ringing for hours after. This isn’t a complaint; I love that (except perhaps the ringing in my ears). However, this is just one side of me. When I’m not rocking out to death metal or hardcore, more often than not I’m listening to post -rock, or any of the dozens of subgenres that might fall under that umbrella.
For those not familiar with the term ‘post-rock’, it’s a highly contested genre to label a band as. Ambient artists such as Helios and Manual are lumped into the same category as heavier, structured bands like Pelican or Russian Circles. Everything from avant garde neo-classical music to melodic glitch pop has been called post-rock, and once you get past the genre nitpicking, you find yourself faced with some of the more unique and aurally challenging music of this era.
Anyway, this all brings us to Balmorhea, who of course sound nothing like any of the previously mentioned bands. The Austin sextet has been gaining plenty of traction, performing at Austin City Limits in 2010 and having their song “Settler” used in a recent commercial for Intel. It was no surprise to me when I got there to see that the show was sold out, given Balmorhea’s popularity in Austin as well as it being their first show in town in months. In just the time it took to check my name with will call, five different people came in only to walk away crestfallen upon reading the “sold out” sign. One tried bribing the doorman to no avail.
Circumstances beyond my control led me to miss the first act, producer Spencer Stephenson’s ambient project, Botany. This was a slight bummer, but such is life. After what seemed an unusually long setup time, Austin based Peter And The Wolf came on stage. PATW is the project of Redding Hunter, who isn’t so much a songwriter as he is a storyteller. I was happy to see one of my favorite Austin songwriters, Dana Falconberry as one of two singers accompanying him on vocal harmonies. I spent half of their set trying to find a spot in the crowd where people weren’t talking, but no place was safe. The trio was too quiet and the crowd far too loud and inattentive to really enjoy the set. Peter And The Wolf seemed cognizant of this as well, and despite the level of talent and quality of the songs, they never really clicked that night.
The crowd was able to find the mute button once Balmorhea came out. The instrumental setup was perfect: their cellist, violinist, and double bassist on stage right, and guitarist, drummer, and keyboardist stage left, with a large vibraphone in the middle rear. The split between the classical and rock instrumentation was purely visual, as the six musicians fit together to create one sound within the performance’s first few notes. Each of Balmorhea’s four full lengths is an entirely different concept from the previous, and the band played songs from each, putting their entire range and repertoire on display.
The musicians hit on every emotion their songs might elicit; delicate and melodic at times while unrestrained and dynamic at others. Some of the highlights include four members converging at once on the vibraphone to perform “Candor”, the eerie stillness in the air during the piano driven “Constellations”, and the show’s encore featuring an unnamed song that the band played for the first time. The unnamed new song was an upbeat pop ditty drenched in polyphony; a preview of what musical direction we might expect Balmorhea to take next in their constantly evolving sound. There are some performances that stick with you long after the final note has stopped ringing, and this was one of them. I’ve got a small list of bands that I will see any and every time they’re in town, and you can add Balmorhea to that list.
– Submitted by James Whelan, Music Design