SXSW 2013: Balmorhea – Stranger


Failure to refer to the members of Austin’s Balmorhea as anything other than world-class musicians should be a crime punishable by repeated listening of their 2012 LP Stranger. On this, their 5th LP, Balmorhea soar to magnificent heights once again with their minimalistic, but never sparse sounding brand of instrumental music. This review is unfortunately too long in the coming, with Stranger having been released this past September and my having owned a copy for almost as long. This was always the review that I was going to “get to next,” but as often is the case, life and other interests conspired to let it slip again and again. It wasn’t until I saw Balmorhea play the Scottish Rite Theater with Mother Falcon in early February that I finally lit a fire under my ass to give these magnificent musicians their due.

Stranger is a multi-instrumental masterpiece that’s just as driven by twinkling guitar riffs and moody bass lines as it is resounding cellos, transcendental piano, and a variety of percussion. Anyone familiar with instrumental and post-rock in general will no doubt recognize a familiar format to Balmorhea’s songs. What often begins as quiet guitar noodling more often than not ends up as a full-fledged jam session for the entire band and lends the individual tracks an almost film score quality. What sets Balmorhea apart from other Austin instrumentalists like Explosions in the Sky or The Calm Blue Sea is the tone of the songs. This is chamber music for the modern age, perfect for scoring quiet spring afternoons spent on a patio with a rum (and coke), cozy slippers, warm sunshine, and (if you’re like me) a nice cigar. Beethoven may have composed “Ode to Joy”, but Balmorhea have captured the exact sentiment of that phrase on Stranger.

Balmorhea live are another thing entirely. You wouldn’t think that the above description would be something you needed to share with 100 strangers in a music space somewhere, but when it comes to this band you’d be dead wrong. Perhaps it was the combination of the Scottish Rite Theater’s dignified presence, the beautiful stage dressing, or Mother Falcon’s (usual) brilliant opening set, but as Balmorhea played that night on February 2nd, I felt a sense of both awe and reverence. It was like church without the guilt and condemnation. More so than that it was their actual performance that gave me a proper respect for the true level of expertise these musicians brought to the fore as they not only played a set so flawless it could have been a studio recording, but their stage presence emanated both professionalism and a kind of quiet exuberance. If you’ve never heard Balmorhea before, then Stranger is no worse place to start than any. This group is a class act that deserves to be recognized both around Austin and abroad and if you get the chance to see them live (check you SXSW schedule for their next live performance) you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t go.