Into the Wild

Balmorhea's frontier wonderment

Across the great divide: (l-r) Mike Bell, Aisha Burns, Nicole Kern, Michael Muller, Travis Chapman, and Rob Lowe
Across the great divide: (l-r) Mike Bell, Aisha Burns, Nicole Kern, Michael Muller, Travis Chapman, and Rob Lowe (Photo by John Anderson)

Beneath the bridge that divides Columbus, Texas, the Colorado River treads so slowly that the current appears to be moving in both directions. A slightly trodden path winds through the thicket, leading to an embankment where evergreen trees shade the waterway below. Butterflies flutter overhead, and a tattered barbed wire fence marks the point of no return.

It was here that William B. DeWees, a colonist and blacksmith from Kentucky and one of Stephen F. Austin's Old Three Hundred, wrote Letters From an Early Settler of Texas to a Friend. Published in 1852, his correspondence not only provides a firsthand account of the Texas Revolution's infamous Runaway Scrape; it also offers a rare glimpse of life on the frontier, DeWees torn between his fascination with the idyllic nature of his surroundings and the innate danger it imposed:

"I have never witnessed a sight of the kind, which, in my opinion, was more beautiful than this. The color of it is far deeper and richer than any I have ever before seen. ... Yet we are in a country with which we are entirely unacquainted; no road, no compass, and at the point of starvation."

This excerpt is scrawled on the inside cover of Balmorhea's third LP, All Is Wild, All Is Silent (see "SXSW Records," March 20), setting the scene for the local sextet's take on colonial independence. Cinematic in breadth and temperament, the album charts an instrumental pilgrimage across the endless hills and valleys of Central Texas.

"This is exactly what I pictured in my head," offers multi-instrumentalist Rob Lowe as he surveys the lay of the land, "[DeWees] alone on a ledge, looking out over the horizon."

"Only now most of that wilderness has been pacified," adds guitarist Michael Muller, who founded the group – pronounced bal-more-ray – with Lowe three years ago.

All Is Wild is Balmorhea's bold declaration of sovereignty, a landmark exploration of historical fiction. There's splendor in the grass and blood in the water – romantic wonderment and mournful resignation – all told through intricate passages of piano, acoustic guitar, and strings, then embellished with percussive flourishes and wordless vocals.

"Most of his language was fairly basic, just detailing the different things he encountered," Lowe summarizes over lunch at Beckey's Cafe in downtown Columbus, mere blocks from DeWees' historical marker. "Then there were times when he would launch into this more poetic style that was on a completely different plane. There was this elevated liveliness to his writing where you could tell he was genuinely enamored with his surroundings. Those were the passages that really stuck with me.

"With All Is Wild, we were looking for that same sort of adventure. It's not trying to describe anything but those big-picture moments where you're affected by something larger. I think our music lends itself to that way of celebrating the grandeur in the mundane."

Balmorhea's appeal lies in its emotional malleability, the way the music seems to shift in mood and meaning depending on the circumstances in which it's heard. It feels as if there's something left open or unfinished, waiting to be completed by the listener. You get back as much as you put in.

That sentiment holds true beginning with the band's eponymous 2007 debut. Recorded at home as a duo, the autumnal collection's rough-sketch instrumentals pair field recordings with found sounds, most notably "In the Rowans," which couples Lowe's eloquent harmonic arpeggios on piano with the racing of an old typewriter. Evidenced by a reworking of "Baleen Morning," last year's graceful Rivers Arms found Balmorhea expanding its horizons with ambitious chamber-rock orchestration, thanks to a steady stream of live performances and the addition of upright bassist Travis Chapman, violinist Aisha Burns, and cellist Nicole Kern. The latter two played alongside Lowe in Alex Dupree's Trapdoor Band.

Though the band's lineup and instrumentation continue to change and evolve – Lymbyc Systym's Mike Bell and Bruce Blay of Denton's Sleep Whale alternately fill in on percussion duties – the music still builds off of the inextricable interplay between the group's co-founders. A former member of the Men's Chorus at the University of Texas, Lowe is a classically trained pianist whose spacious, dynamic phrasing recalls that of Arvo Pärt. The 24-year-old Midland native translates that same stylistic approach to guitar and banjo as well, occasionally in the same song. Five years his senior, Muller, who serves as the band's manager, has a minimalist's resolve and a knack for finding complementary melodies.

"We balance each other out," Muller nods.

More importantly, they match each other's prolific pacing. Having recently completed the soundtrack to short film "Guest Room," available on iTunes, Balmorhea is already looking toward the February release of its fourth LP in as many years, Constellations. The album is an exercise in restraint that scales back filmic flourishes in favor of a more subdued, melancholic atmosphere.

"We don't just want to just get bigger and louder while doing the same thing," Lowe reasons. "We work a lot with texture and structure, trying to expand our palette. I think it's important to be able to a step backwards in order to do something new. I'm already thinking about different directions I'd like to go and different sounds I'd like to explore after the record that isn't even out yet."

Thrusting Balmorhea into uncharted territory, All Is Wild, All Is Silent Remixes, a limited-edition double LP newly available through Western Vinyl, creates an alternate history for the band's fictional narrative. It's a rite of passage, placing the music in the hands and context of the group's contemporaries.

Eluvium drags opener "Settler" 20,000 leagues under the sea, slowing the song to a 17-minute ambient wash of looped strings, canyon-echo vocals, and flickering acoustic guitar. Dark-folk chanteuse Tiny Vipers, who contributed vocals to two songs on All Is Wild, converts "Harm and Boon" to a tonal drone, shadowing the approach favored by Seattle-based composer Rafael Anton Irisarri.

Exemplifying his Austin-based label's invested interest in ambient architecture, Western Vinyl owner Brian Sampson takes a turn at "Elegy," scrambling, reversing, and stretching fragments of the source material into a glistening mosaic of sound; the effect resembles that of a shattered mirror. The Fun Years' percussion-heavy treatment of "Coahuila" borders on post-rock, while Sweden's Library Tapes push only the kick drum to the forefront, heightening the impact of his choppy repetitions. From the electro-acoustic filtration of Poland's Jacaszek ("Night in the Draw") to Xela's closing static swell ("November 1, 1832"), all the collaborators carve their own paths.

"It's very flattering," says Muller. "I have a lot of respect for all the artists we asked. We let them choose the song they wanted to work on, then sent them all of the stem files to work with. There were no rules. It's interesting to see our music through their eyes. It gave us a bit of perspective."

What's surprising is the fluidity with which the entire remix project ebbs and flows together. Yet like the intermittent traffic breaking up the natural resonance of the Colorado River, it's a stark contrast to the subtle grace and patient perfectionism of Balmorhea.

Carrying acoustic guitars to the shore, Muller and Lowe illustrate that point with an instrumental revision of "Coahuila." With eyes closed and backs turned to the water, the two sway back and forth in place to the melody. Their guitars intertwine with relative ease – Lowe out front and Muller wading around him – mirroring the current that pushes and pulls against itself in serene harmony as the song gently fades away. In this moment, all is wild, all is silent.

All is well.

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Balmorhea, Western Vinyl, Rob Lowe, Michael Muller, William B. DeWees

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