As a firm believer in the power of music, I love to see and hear the ways in which people derive meaning from music. The experience is different for everyone: from minute details (eyes open or closed; the way in which people attach themselves to particular instrumental tendrils) to overarching patterns of interaction, music influences both physical affect and mental emotion. Evidence of this is abundant in our experienced world: athletes use music to center and motivate themselves as part of pre-game rituals, while parents’ lullabies soothe and settle children at bed-time. This is where so much of the beauty of music lies: in its ability to be a visceral tool, capable of interacting with both the mind and the body in deep, profound ways.
While this capability is inherent to all music, there are artists who realize and intentionally expand upon that visceral potential so that their music resonates intimately within their audience. Their music creates a world of its own, transporting listeners to a headspace that feels as if it manifests itself both physically and emotionally. Austin’s post-rock ensemble Balmorhea has spent the last decade flirting with this potency, and with the release of their new LP Clear Language they invite their listeners to a fully-fledged universe of the band’s own dreamy devise.
From the first moment of the opening and titular track, Balmorhea begins crafting this ethereal landscape. A solitary, spacey note meets a whispery rustle, reminiscent of the soft early morning chatter of cicadas. A cheerful piano progression invites listeners to open their eyes. As we do so, we feel the distinct sensation of arriving in an unfamiliar place, a place that is incomprehensible but somehow still comforting. We are not home, but we are not strangers. Buoyant piano dances around the listener while fragile, airy tones drift in the background, urging us to explore our new surroundings. The song is lonely, for it is impossible to envision being in this place with someone else. At the same time, however, the song is hopeful, promising to keep us company as we look for truth in a strange land.
The rest of Clear Language, then, acts as the soundtrack to our adventures in this new sonic environment. The only inhabitants here—our guides if you will—are the instruments that weave in and out of the tracks, never overstaying their welcome nor making their presence overbearing. They know their job is to comfort us, to explain the inner workings of this world in a way that we can comprehend. The fantastical interweaving of bass guitar, guitar and strings does a huge amount of this work, providing a sense of purpose throughout the album to maintain forward momentum. Just as songs threaten to carry us away in astral wonder, their instrumental lucidity grounds us and reminds us of our purpose.
The experience is thus deeply reflective, never fully disconnecting the nearly-cosmic sonic environment from the realm of personal reality. This is vital, because the experience is not meant to be one of mere presence. We aren’t invited to see this world; we are invited to grow and evolve alongside it and, ultimately, learn from it. The masterpiece of the album “Slow Stone” best embodies this purpose. Just as the horns and guitar in the song intricately intertwine each other—first hesitantly and then with mounting enthusiasm in a sinewy dance—the listener and the music must dance with each other, prodding and exploring each other’s intimacy in order to learn from one another.
Clear Language flows like a river, gaining and losing momentum without a worry about being stagnant. Each track follows a fundamental musical “notion” upon which it is built, and it follows that notion all the way to its destination, wherever that may be. There is no clear sense of resolution, nor of any particular goal, behind any individual track; the album is an experience of progress and growth. Balmorhea recognizes that value lies in the journey, in the willingness to explore the depth of an idea and in doing so discover more about the depth of self.
With Clear Language, Balmorhea has constructed a movie soundtrack that needs no accompanying movie. By inviting and welcoming us into its world, and through its willingness to converse with us, Clear Language acts as a medium for understanding. It is a language that needs no interpreters, no intermediary. It communicates simply through being experienced and being inhabited. The album’s impeccable layering stimulates its audience by uniting mind and body in a simple sonic journey, a journey that follows no narrative form but instead is a simple, pure conversation between music and self.