Michael A. Muller the co-founder of Balmorhea has recently released his solo debut “Lower River” through both the Beacon Sound and 1631 Recordings labels. Balmorhea have been around for some thirteen years largely releasing via the superb Western Vinyl label. Balmorhea ‘s music has been described as a mix of minimalism meets Post Rock meets Classical and has seen their works used in television. This solo album features the talents of bass clarinetist Jonathan Sielaff (Golden Retriever), vocals by Heather Woods Broderick (known for work with Sharon Van Etten & Efterklang), and abstract double bass and cello by Balmorhea’s Sam Pankey and Elan Green, respectively.
“Beacon Sound presents “Lower Rover”, the debut solo album by Michael A. Muller. Conceptually, the album explores the place where time, space and self care are occluded – a field of pure energy and creation similar to the “the flow” or zen state where ideas stream without impediment. Inspired by Muller’s own remote travels throughout the US and Europe and the personal exploration of a meditative practice, it’s a sonic exploration of what it means to deeply listen versus to merely HEAR, to immerse oneself in navigating the subconscious plane of pure energy and deep, immersive creativity.”
The album is a exercise in sound mixing in field recordings made by Muller from an isolated Oregon coast, Rural Southern Italy and fishing villages in the South of France. The concept of the album was to find out “what it means to deeply listen amid a modern narrative underwritten by distraction. Merging his field recordings with original compositions recorded in his home studio in Austin, Lower River is a sonic venture into other worlds and into the depths of one’s own mind; a study in engaging with sounds that don’t easily slot into pre-existing notions of what a album ‘ought’ to be.”
The easiest (or possibly laziest characterization) of the album would be to reduce it to a five letter word – Drone, but this would be a total disservice to the album as it so much more than that, at times, one dimensional form of music. Over the course of the eight tracks and approximately forty-one minutes Muller takes the listener into sound worlds that use field recordings more as an ethnographical signpost, rather than adding them as a texture or a cue. A piece like “Elyria” which uses the Bass Clarinet of Jonathan Sielaff has a feeling of exploring a place that is mysterious, tropical and alluring. For some reason I envision a jungle with humidity and dense foliage that draws you in, but keeps you unsure just where you are heading.
The opener and title track “Lower River” sets the scene for the album with its slow flowing plates of sound building over a mechanical loop and glacial ambience. Not totally rooted in old dronisms, the piece makes use of a retro-futurist that has hope embedded within it. It’s the type of piece that can contrast sonic feelings of dark and light and come out with a positive touch. It sets you up nicely for the cinematic and thought out composed (rather than bolted together) feel of the album. The closest the album gets to sounding traditional is on “New Symmetry” where the subtle double bass of Sam Pankey gently strums over the swirling vortex of looping sounds while Elan Green’s cello swoons around. The result is a piece that has an introspective feel amongst the cloudy moods.
The centre part of the album where tracks like “Glyph 1″,”Seen” and “Glyph 2” exist takes the music more in the textural ambient drone vein which sets about creating soundscapes in similar nature to the likes of say “Elyria”, but instead of taking you in an environment it is more about the experimenting with sounds that clang, shimmer, throb and manipulating them into different textures and feel. “Seen” nicely takes this musical in an equally cinematic and modern classical feel (despite the lack of strings) using Heather Woods Broderick ‘s angelic voice to cast over the music like a wall of synth pads. Her voice adds a layer of Ambience and reverence to the piece and counters some of the slightly unsettling soundscapes – like as if a storm is slightly brewing. With “Glyph II” Muller sets about creating a vast sonic soundscape that at times sounds distant, vast, cold, isolating, removed from light and utterly captivating. It’s like you are taken to another world and left to explore the surroundings. One thing that is missing is dread, but there is still a certain amount of cautiousness as you explore.
“Fixed Shadows” sees the return of minimal jazz like double bass as Muller balances long form layered drones with what sounds like low bowed cello and possibly guitar. The bass acts as a percussive device, partly creating a rhythm, partly breaking up the soundscape. Like the other pieces on the album there is a darkness that cloaks the track (and probably reflects the name), but as some music of this nature can repell the listener in this case you are drawn in because of the depth of sound which reveals all that is going on in the individual layers within the track.
Muller brings the album to a close with the epic sounding “Recedes”. If I thought that bass in the previous track had a percussive nature, then it’s the piano in this one. The piano counters between a delightful narrative driven feel and the heavy weighted punctuation that adds a heft to the piece. Other than the piano, which grounds the piece, Muller notches up the dronal layering with a swirling kaleidoscope of sound that thankfully never goes over the top but matches the piano by elevating the piece and adding this layer of intense emotion that in some form or another feels like a release of spent emotions. Cinematic in nature it is an astute choice in its placement within the album as it is a final emotional push before the album leaves you to return to the beginning. I would probably single the track out as being the most memorable as it feels perfectly formed with all its parts contributing to the overall feel and intensity. It is the type of piece that leaves you wanting more, which for me is the way most albums should end.
With “Lower River” Michael A. Muller will take you into deeper, darker territory and it will be one that will reward you endlessly. “Lower River” is available on limited Lp via Beacon Sound and Digital via 1631 Recordings.