It’s rare for an instrumental group to be as prolific as Balmorhea, with All Is Wild, All Is Silent serving as the group’s third LP in as many years (and another is already reportedly recorded). What is even rarer, however, is for those albums to improve with each release and progress as vividly as Balmorhea has. Last year’s Rivers Arms took the subtle constructions that Rob Lowe and Michael Muller had outlined on their eponymous 2007 debut and expanded them with string arrangements and touches of ambient field recordings that gave the impression of falling in and out of a dream. The group’s latest effort builds even further upon their familiar classical elements that have set Balmorhea apart from typical post-rock pack, yet also flashes moments of more power and a greater restlessness than any of their previous tunes, largely due to the addition on this album of drums courtesy of Bruce Blay.
The title All is Wild, All is Silent is an excellent encapsulation of the album’s aesthetic. Across the nine tracks there is a tension strung between the dichotomy of restless swells and a longing for something beyond with a kind of bittersweet resignation or reflection. This drama gives the album a very visceral emotional punch that the group’s other work hasn’t quite achieved, the more settled and mellow compositions of their other albums providing a beautifully rich soundscape, but nothing that quite matches the exciting topography that emerges here.
The 6:39 opener “Settler” is an extraordinary statement to start. Beginning with Lowe’s determined but controlled piano line, the strings that emerge provide a reaching anticipation that finally breaks with the infusion of soft percussion and Muller’s classical guitar. But there is also an alternating of sharp staccatoed bursts with the group’s usual intricate interplay, a coherence that comes together powerfully and then breaks apart into its own separate pieces. If the exploratory nature of the album seems to serve as its theme, “Settler” surveys the horizon with a restless and excited push (Muller even humming lightly “Now I’m on my way”). As the song turns in the last two minutes to handclap bursts and tremulous chanting, Balmorhea does indeed seem to be departing into territories heretofore unexplored.
All of that is brought to fruition with the album’s centerpiece trifecta of “Harm and Boom,” “Elegy,” and “Rememberance.” Just as the longer songs seem to veer towards the more standard combination of build up and release, the entire album alternates between the mini-epics that continually wind down unexpected paths, and the shorter, more subtle interludes that hearken their earlier work. “March 4, 1831” calms after the opening rush of “Settler,” but only to set the stage for the surge of “Harm and Boom.” The hypnotic piano that opens the song evokes the kind of clear, almost prescient, intensity of the landscape before a thunderstorm, the cello and violin slowly gathering the clouds. When the climax does come, it is a tightly wound whirl of strings and percussion that is sliced with Muller’s guitar, stunningly dancing in and out with the plucked violin that feels almost magical, an opening of the skies not in fury, but possibility. And the dénouement of the song proves just as revelatory, the electric guitar becoming a slow, abrasively set rhythm as the violin and Lowe’s banjo forage through the aftermath with an almost Americana feel.
“Elegy” gently mends the rent fabric though, with delicately interwoven dual guitars that lead into the banjo and guitar exchange of “Rememberance.” Accordingly, “Remembrance” moves with a lonely yearning, the upright bass plumbing the conscious depths as vocals moan out in a rising sway. The climax is more controlled when it hits, the chant sounding as if it’s wanting to break out, but held back by the rigid martial percussion. But that restraint is also a hallmark of Balmorhea, never quite launching into the abyss, but always inching towards its edge to tantalizingly hint at the fall without ever letting go.
The vocal chants the emerge and recede through several of the songs fill out the tunes in a new way for the band, much more effective than the sampled field recordings of voices on Rivers Arms. They seem to actually wrap the songs in a more insular envelope, perhaps because of the slight reverb, so rather than simply serving as an extra layer like most of the vocals do for primarily instrumental outfits, songs like “Coahuila” seem to actually be compressed and somewhat held in by the easily gliding vocal fluctuations.
Although “Night in the Draw” doesn’t leave much of an impression, the penultimate “Truth” highlights the end of the album with Aisha Burns’ stunning violin lead. While the piano and guitar still serve as the bedrock of the song, allowing the violin more into the forefront is a nice change for the band and still blends well with the general sound that has defined them since only a duo. “Truth” retains the kind of understated expression of Balmorhea’s earlier work, but with the touch of cymbals and bass drum underlying, adds a richer texture. And the seamless flow into closer “November 1, 1832” completes the journey with a soft return.
Altogether, Balmorhea still somehow manages to surprise on their third album, offering a perfect blend of what has previously made them so exceptional while expanding in some unexpected new directions. All is Wild, All is Silent a testament to both Balmorhea’s clear vision as a band, and their willingness to tentatively push their perimeters.