Constellations always seemed to require too much focus and imagination for me. As a youngster, instead of getting psyched by trying to locate one in the night sky, all I could think of was how much of a stretch the whole enterprise was – how much it missed the forest for the trees. So it seems a little ironic to me that acoustic instrumental quintet Balmorhea’s frisky previous album, All is Wild, All is Silent was about seeing the trees, while the new album, which looks for the forest, is titled Constellations. Whereas All is Wild was a loose concept which envisaged settlers learning to live on the wild frontier, Constellations aims for feelings associated with the deep, wide-open sky. To try to communicate this idea, they’ve reined in most of their flashy ornate tendencies to focus more on the meditative and restrained, and they’ve done so to mixed results.
The presumable concept of this album, focusing on how humans impose form and meaning on vast unknowable voids, is intellectually interesting and commendable. Beautifully recorded by Andrew Hernandez, this album is not short on luxurious sounds and competent musicianship. However, the songwriting seems a little too minimal at times, allowing the momentum built by the stronger, more fully formed and distinct pieces to dissipate like a piano note held in long sustain. Still, the high points are very, very good. “Steerage and the Lamp” steers full throttle into Philip Glass territory, adding a little orchestral mischief for tension and slowing occasionally for some ominously banged chords, and it is an absolute tour de force. With its up-front, barely-there drums and slow bass, “On the Weight of Night” plods along like a lost track from Mogwai’s Come On Die Young. Only the fantastic “Bowsprit”, teetering and ornate, really approaches a distinctly Balmorhean sound. It utilizes all of the band’s players and all of their strengths, presents depth through texture, interlocks some lovely and distinct parts, and puts the melody on display front-and-center.
“Bowsprit” also seems to be the one track that comes closest to meeting the human-centered theme they set out for themselves by approaching the idea of constellations. Relative to the other tracks here, it seems to play up the distinctly human elements of unpredictable emotion and unbridled thought – common reactions to deep reflection brought upon by confrontation with cosmic insignificance. While the moodier tracks can also be indicative of other appropriate reactions to metaphysical ruminations, the human spin that invoking the idea of constellations puts forth seems difficult to sense. Much of the emotion here feels a bit mechanical, and the feeling comes of more funereal than awe-inspring.
Constellations is only remarkable when it is given your absolute attention, but it doesn’t come up with enough ideas to keep it on its own, lulling the listener with too many serviceably dramatic but non-descript piano-led pieces. This makes the work as a whole somewhat impenetrable, even as it can feel satisfying on a piece-by-piece basis with some attention. There are undeniably great moments here, but they sound too much like strongly defined moments from the great works of other bands to really give this concept the continuity it deserves. So, I have a similar problem with Constellations that I have with constellations – there are a few that really stick out, but overall, the payoff seems limited compared to the amount of effort and imagination required to see what’s going on.