Balmorhea – Stranger (2012)

The fifth release from this 5 year old project, Stranger by Balmorhea.

Balmorhea have been slowly acquiring a fan base since their beautiful self-titled debut in 2007, a carefully constructed Modern Classical meets Post Rock release that paved the way for their later albums like Constellations and my personal favourite Rivers Arms. Their lush, electronic-deficient music is very easy to consume and yet has always had an intelligent and thoughtful lilt to it, something that has been (mostly) been carried forward once more on their latest work.

This being said, it feels like Balmorhea are out to prove a point with this album more so than their previous releases. Stranger is the most active and driven I have heard them, and off the back of very quiet and introspective Ambient/Chamber Pop/etc it does come as a bit of a surprise. Sure, there have been moments in albums prior where they have cranked it up a notch or two and really let the melodies shout but Stranger is far more blunt in this regard as it is no longer a thrilling acoustical climax in the music itself, but rather very precisely considered rhythms and guitar riffs that overshadow the underlying ambience.

Don’t get me wrong, tracks like “Dived” are truly excellent; perfectly balanced piano solos mingled with electric guitar, sinuous percussion and chanting come together brilliantly and remind us that this outfit has not lost their edge, they have simply evolved their sound. Others like “Jubi”, however, remind us that while they have not lost their Southwestern origins with their distinctly lilted guitar one cant help but shake the feeling that this isn’t them. “Pyrakanth”, which is the poster-child track of this release, certainly epitomises this new sonic direction, initiating very clear and direct beats that sounds very un-Balmorhea like; it is however rather excellent and despite my whining it’s quite nice to have these very purposeful melodies.

Since it kind of feels like the envelope of their previous sound was becoming increasingly more constricted with every release, it’s a nice tangential movement away while still maintaining a vestige of the original sound. Even so, I have to question whether tracks like “Artifact” really belong in the Balmorhea catalogue, with its sharp and determined riffs barrelling over beautiful, buried acoustic guitar and piano. Even when gems like the intimate “Shore” and the floaty abstraction of “Islet” counterbalance these brash and bold melodies, it still feels off-center and indecisive.

As much as I am enjoying this I do think it lives up to its namesake rather well; this album really is something of a “stranger” when I consider Balmorhea’s backcatalogue. Does it feel like a Balmorhea release? Not especially; it feels like a transition zone album, one that has its feet in two buckets; the old and the new. There’s more singular stunners here than a cohesive whole but it is still an enthralling listen throughout, just in trying to work out which way each track is going to pan out.