The Post-Coroner answers to no power and acts outside any jurisdiction. With a taste encompassing everything post- and -core, he moves with the grace of a rampaging badger through a field of corn; bludgeoning ears left and right and galloping straight at the next biggest threat, whether if be a bear or a motionless tractor.
Welcome back to The Post-Coroner! This week we’re heading to the ethereal realm of post-rock with Texans Balmorhea (Bal-ma-ray) – mainly because I had the pleasure of watching them earlier this week in a room of about a hundred people, and it was absolutely amazing.
A sextet of considerable skill, Balmorhea hail from Austin, the same town as their perhaps better-known contemporaries Explosions In The Sky. They’re incredibly prolific, having released something every year since 2007 – the year which followed their inception – and sometimes more than one record, which is impressive considering the quality. It’s their 2010 offering Constellations – my gateway drug to the band – which is the focus of my autopsy today.
I should preface what I’m about to say by explaining that I’m quite picky with my post-rock. I tend to stick to the ‘greats’ because if it’s not well done, and if every god damn note isn’t placed carefully and pointedly, I’m just not interested.
What first struck me about Constellations was as much the notes that weren’t placed – that deliberately weren’t even there – as much as the ones that were. This apparent caution against overdoing things – there are six multi-talented multi-instrumentalists in the group after all – is better interpreted as wisdom. They’re not afraid to use different instruments, motifs and melodies sparingly, not matter how orgasmically good they are – and dropping them after a few bars for effect. The New Yorker once described Balmorhea as “an exemplary experiment in restraint”, and I think that’s a fantastic description of their dedication to perfection.
For all their talents, there are three main elements to this album: the piano, a triumvirate of violin, cello and double bass, and the acoustic guitar. All three feature heavily in some regard; both alone and in unison, and it makes for a breathtaking thirty-seven minutes.
Early tune “Bowsprit” is a bright little number that grows in confidence as it progresses. The lone guitar is joined along the way by a violin, before the real magic of the song rears its head; a gorgeously appropriate banjo, punctuated by the stamping of the band members’ feet as percussion. The later call/response between the chordophones and the more classical strings builds nicely, especially when the lower-end kicks in, and the track reaches a wholly satisfying conclusion after about five minutes.
Track 02: “Bowsprit”
The piano is an instrument used to great effect on this record. From the delicate, hair-raising intro of album opener “To The Order Of Night” to the haunting “Winter Circle“, its multi-faceted use is bewitching. The beginning of the title track in particular transports you right into the studio with Balmorhea; you can hear the clacks of the keys bottoming out as they’re struck in rapid succession. This speed is not echoed elsewhere though; the tune doesn’t quite get going until about the three minute mark, when the lone piano’s haunting quality returns, before ducking into album centrepiece “Steerage and the Lamp” and joining up with that gorgeously low double bass.
Track 06: “Steerage and the Lamp”
When the band broke into this song on Monday night, I let out an audible moan of pleasure. There’s a tangible spine-tingling quality to this record; I’ve listened to it about four times over the past few days whilst I’ve written this column, and it feels like the entire cast of Riverdance is jigging on my grave at times. It builds beautifully throughout the seven-plus minutes, all the while keeping things interesting. The mid-point sees a noir-jazz break, like rain striking a window in a late-night Parisian cafe, before moving. It’s tracks like this that cements incumbent pianist Rob Lowe as one of the finest in the genre; his ear for melody, utilised with the harmonic skill of the whole band, is breathtaking on this record.
Although ensemble choral vocals do occasionally feature, it’s the vocal quality of the guitar on “Night Squall” that steals the show in this regard. You can imagine it as a soaring, wordless song, sending the wind up your spine as the title implies.
Track 07: “Night Squall”
It’s hard to find fault with the input of the drummer here. I can’t find out who it was – I’m not sure if it was current percussionist Kendall Clarke or someone else – but whilst Constellations has a classical quality at times, it’s this drumming that transforms this into something else entirely. An achingly slow track, “On The Weight Of Night” is an understated gem, featuring the use of soft mallets and brushes on the kits, a slow acoustic melody, and a background organ for depth.
Track 08: “On The Weight Of Night”
“Palestrina” brings in the final five and a half minute home straight. It’s a calm, slow-rolling arrangement of ethereal drone elements for about three and a half of those, before a scattering of warm, masterfully picked guitar chords provide the ‘closing statement’, if you will, and allow you to drift off, utterly contented.
Track 09: “Palestrina”
Since Constellations the band have kept momentum, releasing the Candor / Clamor 7″ vinyl that same year, a live album the next, and culminating in last October’s captivating Stranger. In honesty I sometimes find it hard to move past Constellations, because it just is that good, but the rest of their output explores that aforementioned multi-instrumentation marvellously; electric guitars, steel drums and a wide variety of percussive instruments take their bow, and it’s a catalogue well worth exploring.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed today’s entry by The Post-Coroner. I’ll be trying to cover a different genre each week, to keep it interesting – there is such a wide ocean of different genres to trawl, after all. Catch my listening habits on Last.fm if you really care at all, and leave a comment or something below. Don’t be a butthole.
27th March: These Arms Are Snakes – Easter