Leave it to Balmorhea to confound expectations. The earthy, acoustic-oriented style the group brought to its previous full-length, All is Wild, All is Silent, seemed a perfect fit for an album concept concerned with isolated settlers adapting to new frontiers. So when the band decides to christen its follow-up Constellations, one can be forgiven for expecting some kind of galaxial dimension to enter into the group's sound—maybe a synthesizer or two, or perhaps a stab at kosmische musik? As it turns out, though the new album's conceptual focus does tend towards the cosmic (the wordless vocals coursing through “Winter Circle” suggest that Constellations could be read as a mystical meditation on the upper spheres by earth's inhabitants), the group itself doesn't sound radically different from the one heard on All is Wild, All is Silent, and Constellations ultimately sounds like a natural extension of it than some major departure.
During the first listen or two, the sketchy character of the recordings proves disconcerting. Anyone who thought Balmorhea would build upon the advances of the previous recording by crafting a grandiose epic as a sequel will instead discover the band—on the new recording, core members Rob Lowe and Michael Muller accompanied by Aisha Burns, Travis Chapman, Nicole Kern, and (on two songs) percussionist Michael Bell— doing the very opposite in creating pieces that are often skeletally arranged and opt for space and quietude rather than grand theatrics. But repeated exposure to the recording produces a shift in response, and the intimate character of the album grdually grows into a key part of its appeal.
So it is that the album sets sail with a delicate piano setting titled “To the Order of Night” where the creak of every note played is audible, and though the piece is brief, it's long enough for its beauty to be heard. The second song, “Bowsprit,” proves easily identifiable as a Balmorhea song once the banjo appears amidst the acoustic guitar, bass, and strings. In this expansively arranged seting, the lush weave of strings, banjo, and plodding percusion proves to be more than a little entrancing. The album mixes single-instrument and ensemble pieces to good effect, with acoustic guitar (“Herons”) and piano (the pensive and lyrical title track) settings alternating with expansively arranged compositions. “Steerage and the Lamp” alternates between dense piano clusters and the statement of a dramatic, spacious theme, both of which are deepened by the accompaniment of bowed strings. Though it's less than four minutes long, “Night Squall” nevertheless packs a powerful punch in its nuanced interweave of pizzicatti strings, bowed cello, and plucked guitar. The protracted pause that occurs near song's end is merely one more testament to the group's capacity for restraint—a restraint shattered, however, by the thunderclap with which Bell inaugurates the connecting track “On the Weight of Night,” a funereal, organ-heavy dirge that can't help but invite comparison to Labradford.