Constellations is an album drastically and magnificently out-of-step with the modern world. But it’s more than just the acoustic instrumentation or the classical compositions that are as likely to revolve around a piano as a guitar. True to its title, there is a vastness to these melodies that harks back to an age when silence was not so difficult to come by, an age before the stars had been shouted down from the sky by the gleaming eyes of our industrialized urban centers. This is music for the children of the pioneers lying barefoot in a grassy plane with the dome of a moonless sky spread out above them. This is music for a sailor staring out at the black ocean and longing for foreign port. This is an album that is as much pre-rock as it is post-rock.
This, Balmorhea’s fourth album in as many years, makes good on the promise of 2009’s break-out All Is Wild, All Is Silent and pushes the band into bold new territory. The music of Constellations is more primal, not only stripping the melody of most of the electric instrumentation, but also stripping away much of the melody itself. The first five minutes of “Steerage and the Lamp” are dominated by Rob Lowe’s (no, not that Rob Lowe) minimalist piano work, which gains as much vitality from the beauty of its phrases as it does from the spaces in between them. There are no fireworks displays like “Settler” or “Harm & Boon.” Moments of jubilation are harder-won by tracks like “Bowsprit;” the song hauls itself up by its bootstraps from a series of halting, four-note guitar sputters into a sweeping marriage of violin and banjo, punctuated by a slow, steady percussion of foot-stomps and hand-claps. What results is a somber listen, but one that feels unburdened by any contextual constraints.
Only the closing track, “Palestrina,” betrays any touch of the modern. The song is little more than a formless, ambient mist of humming strings and feedback. Gently, the faraway sounds of a church choir pierce the haze; lifted in distant praise, their voices sound like a record playing in another room. The track makes explicit the premise of the album as a whole: that the ancient and the eternal can be brought into harmony with the present, that meaningful dialogue with the past is still possible and even desirable for contemporary artists. Indeed, Constellations is a work of exquisite beauty, coming from a group that grows by leaps and bounds with every release.