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Instrumental five-piece Balmorhea escapes Earth's blue skies and reaches for classically inspired 'Constellations'



Balmorhea with The Non, Dignan and Farewell Flight
7 p.m. Friday
113 N. Crawford, norman
$10, $12 under 21

Space is a cold, empty place, and Balmorhea's latest, February's "Constellations," is similarly sparse.

The Austin, Texas-born quintet formed in 2006, released four full-length albums in as many years, and has accrued a fervent, underground following for textured, all-instrumental songs that combine guitars with cello, violin and atypical drumming.

The group's 2009 release, "All Is Wild, All Is Silent," swells with drama. Heaving, intertwining strings and interwoven rhythms heave, tumble and toil. It isn't exactly over-the-top, but the nine-song release certainly is filled right to the brim.

"The previous record was more summery-feeling, upbeat, and kind of had a little lilt to it," said Michael Muller, one of the act's principal songwriters. "Those are all songs written in those summer months in that kind of warm, blue-sky vein."

That sky is completely gone with "Constellations," as is any semblance of a lilt. In its place, a colorless void and a new sense of weightlessness and serenity.

The Balmorhea (which is pronounced bal-more-ay) members wrote the songs during the winter of 2008, Muller said. He describes the release as a "side step," not a step back.

"It's a little more contemplative," he said. "We were just conscious of not wanting to just keep going forward and forward, louder and louder, more and more. Show some restraint, you know?"

As composed and meticulously arranged as "Constellations" is, the record is neither unfeeling nor sterile. Delicate threads of strings and guitars stream through "Bowspirit," which is shattered by percussive stomps. There's a dissonant turbulence from many of the tracks, including "Herons" and "Palestrina," an appealing unsettledness that stems from unlikely chord changes and atypical song structure.

Both Muller and his songwriting counterpart, Rob Lowe, write from classical influences, including German composers Max Richter and the more electronic Nils Frahm and Clint Mansell, a composer who fronted English alt-rock act Pop Will Eat Itself. Muller said the musicians are also quite fond of Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Gillian Welch.

"We really just grew up listening to more composed music, more minimal stuff as opposed to indie rock," Muller said. "Not to say we don't listen to indie rock " we do " we just have more classical backgrounds."

He said he and Lowe lay the framework for most Balmorhea songs, either with basic piano or guitar parts. Together, the pair comes up with a kernel of a tune, which is later presented to the three other members.

"We'll sit everyone down and say, 'This is an idea we had. What do you think?' From there, we just kind of play around with it," he said.

Balmorhea generally performs a song 10 to 15 times live before commiting to a "final form" that will appear on an album.

While working on a film-score side project this summer, Muller and Lowe ended up with a few extra days of already-booked recording studio time, so they called up their bandmates and laid down a pair of tracks for a 7-inch vinyl release that will drop in November.

"It's kind of a whole different direction again," Muller said. "We just had some ideas we wanted to get down."

He said the band is planning to release the record alongside some guest remixes, and is excited about possible artists who might lay hands on the new tracks, but Muller hesitated at naming any names.

"We have a couple that we're crossing our fingers for, and a couple people that have already confirmed they'll do it, but we're not going to say anything," he said with a laugh. "We don't want to jinx anything yet." "Joe Wertz

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