Acoustic Sounds


Pendant World



The album cover of Balmorhea album Pendant World on Deutsche Grammophon

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Produced By: Jonathan Low

Engineered By: Jonathan Low

Mixed By: Jonathan Low

Mastered By: Joe Lambert

By: Evan Toth

June 20th, 2023



Balmorhea's Latest Release on Deutsche Grammophon, "Pendant World"

The group's latest features a struggle in subtlety

Subtlety is a delicate art form. Too little, and one runs the risk of being too obvious, clunky, or blatant. Too much, and no one gets the joke, takes the hint, or catches the drift. Finding the right amount of subtlety makes comedy funnier and mysteries more intriguing; it can also lead to music that is full of the magic that leaves the listener wanting to hear more. Performing and recording together since 2007, Balmorhea has often explored the auditory world of subtle minimalism and restraint, and they continue to do so on their latest, "Pendant World", their second release on the Deutsche Grammophon label. 

Balmorhea features the compositions of Rob Lowe (nope, not that one) and Michael A. Muller, who arranged and performed on the tracks. While the group is officially a duo, two other core members are featured: Aisha Burns (violin and vocals) and Clarice Jensen (cello). Six other guest musicians lent a hand in sculpting the album's sound. Pendant World was recorded at Guilford Sound in rural Vermont with three-time Grammy-winning engineer and producer Jonathan Low (The National, Taylor Swift, Sufjan Stevens). Mixing ensued at Long Pond Studios in Hudson Valley, NY, which is noted as the setting of Taylor Swift's 2020 documentary connected with her Folklore release, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions. Located on a waterfront property near a pond, the wooden structure that was once a barn has been transformed into a studio featuring an open space with a cathedral-like ceiling, tall windows, and a view of the woods. Further info on this architecturally compelling structure can be found in this News 10 video feature on the architect, Erlend Neumann. 

The album begins with a bang —or, more appropriately, a clang—with a short piece featuring a ringing bell. "Nonplussed" certainly gets the listeners' attention and prepares them for an album that skirts the edge of new and surprising sounds. This clang is a found sound that the group recorded and manipulated in the studio to match their backing tracks. Muller explains the group's instrumentation: "Our main Balmorhea 'voices' are piano and open-tuned acoustic guitars with some string elements, to which we've added everything from samples and vinyl recordings to synthesizers, brass, and flutes. It was about retaining our identity while pushing the envelope for ourselves creatively."

The lumbering, mid-tempo second track, "Oscuros," features a weighty piano and an ethereal mood pushed forward by a drum track. Elements of strings, choral voices, and guitar enhance the tune and demonstrate what Balmorhea does best: creating a somber and laid-back soundscape. The string parts and accompanying vocal treatments uplift the song's basic chordal structure, which evolves in minor ways. 

"Step Step Step" is nearly the same halting tempo as the previous track and recalls that song's compositional structure revealing Balmorhea's recipe: a series of chords repeated with slight changes—maybe a deconstructed b-section—with an arrangement that adds or subtracts different instruments whose players hedge their bets between following direction and gently meandering away from it. It is so similar to "Oscars", the track preceding it, that it would have been a more suitable fit later in the album's sequencing, perhaps even as a balanced way to kick off side two. 

The reflective and elegiac "Desiderium" follows. Here, the Steinway piano's wooden weight and midrange are framed in dramatics, adding the welcome and thoughtful addition of wind chimes and birds chirping. The song presents more as a brief piano sketch searching for a path. Hopefully, your pressing is quiet and clean enough not to disturb with crackles and pops the peaceful backyard garden vibe.

"Desiderium" slowly melts into the distance and gives way to a gripping tempo on "The Bright Door" that unfurls itself in fits and starts as the song progresses. Interesting is the use of a reverb-laden percussion track that adds a unique element of studio influence in the otherwise straightforward and organic approach of the earlier half of the album. Effects are used with excellent subtlety throughout the album, never heavy-handed, always a tasteful accessory. 

Stylistic elements of Bruce Hornsby are recalled on the chordal "Loess" that tucks away gentle - and spooky - voices padding the song's dark and brooding percussive compositional structure and arrangement. "Loess" hints at a theatricality that doesn't develop and instead feels a bit like a keyboard player's warm-up routine. There is a cinematic quality to Balmorhea's newest album, but without that visual counterpart, Pendant World can often feel like a soundtrack in search of a film.

"New Conditions" introduces a solid backbeat offering some thrust and succeeds in reaching the dynamics hinted at throughout the first side. However, a lack of a cutting instrumental melody to counter the song's chording leaves a listener feeling unfulfilled with the notion that some pieces would benefit from further completion, even from a minimalist perspective. It also begs the question about the application of the ten musicians employed on this project; the offerings of these players are nuanced and minimal (which indeed may have been the group's aim), but this creates a scenario in which the musician's performances feel somewhat underutilized; the ideas are there, but instrumentation and arrangements are just a bit too subtle. 

Rob Lowe and Michael A. Muller from Balmorhea

"Held" on side two features a clean electric guitar arpeggio pattern layered over strings wound with ample tension. The guitar returns on the next track—this time, drenched in tubey tremolo—on "Range," which builds on the seasick changes in "Held," yet it blossoms into possibly the most melodic and well-developed track on the album featuring an interplay with nylon string guitar and flute that recalls the Paul Winter Consort. However, at only 1 minute and 43 seconds, "Range" can only develop so much. The guitar trend continues on side two, with "Fire Song" featuring more melodic growth, subtle as it may be. Here—and on many of the album's tracks—there is a heavy reliance upon a repeating carousel of four or six chords: these changes are somewhat meditative - but the short length of each tune disallows the lister the opportunity of securely setting into the trance-like pattern that is merely suggested. 

Dramatic percussion and a mysterious melody kick off "Violet Shiver" and listeners eventually return to the piano to pluck out some well-placed notes before they catch a ride upon a Bonhamesque drum track. But this "Led Zeppy" groove disappears as quickly as it arrived before the song buds into an electronic tease that doesn't quite materialize. "Elsewhere" is a dreamy and beautifully finger-picked number with synthesizer swells and jabs, and it builds an interesting contrapuntal muse to the guitar's trickling nature as it slowly fades into the ether. It's subtle and delicate but suggests a provocative element that imbues it with extra heft. "Elsewhere" may be the album's strongest track. The closer, "Depth Serenade" finds a return to a brooding piano and recalls the waves of a dark and ominous body of water lapping upon the shore at midnight. Well, maybe that's just me. 

As mentioned earlier, Balmorhea employed the use of samples from vinyl records on this album, so even on the digital version, listeners will note pops and clicks in a few places. The album was pressed at Optimal Media in Germany. If the group was hoping for vinyl ambiance on the recording, well, they might have gotten more than they bargained for on this pressing: my 180-gram vinyl pressing was exceptionally noisy at first. I was initially aghast at the sound, but it became surprisingly tamed after several plays, and I now consider it a relatively quiet pressing, but that first spin was a doozy!

The album has moments of beauty and unexpected dynamism, but much of Pendant World feels a little perfunctory. Balmorhea's compositional and performative goal on this record may have been to exhibit austerity, restraint, and a minimalistic approach. Still, they have created a work that is too reserved, with a shortage of melodic interest in favor of short-lived tension and an overreliance on understatement. 

At a hair under 42 minutes, Pendant World is perfectly timed to fit on a vinyl record. However, with 13 tracks, there is only so much room for developing each musical venture and genuinely achieving the meditative piece (or peace) the group aims to create. The album reminds me of the creative process relating to the visual arts. Take a moment to watch a YouTube video of an artist creating a work—or search for an old episode of The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. There will be many times during your viewing session that you think, "Stop, it looks great! Don't do anything else!" But, the artist isn't often satisfied when you are: they continue to add detail, color, or unexpected nuances that you would have never expected, characteristics that you might even have argued against. While Bob Ross may be painting a snowy, barren landscape, he will provide enough aesthetic substance to warrant the effort involved in creating the piece in the first place. Pendant World has the whiff of a second draft of a work that's pretty cool but should have been given the time and energy to grow into something spectacular. Subtlety is tricky and a bit subjective, but the environment created on Balmorhea's Pendant World is safe, cautious, and perhaps just a little too subtle. 

Music Specifications

Catalog No: 4861989

Pressing Plant: Optimal

Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Weight: 180 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo


  • 2023-06-21 07:05:59 AM

    Gary Saluti wrote:

    If you are new to this band don't discount them altogether based on this review. Check out their previous double LP, The Wind.

  • 2023-06-26 02:24:40 PM

    Bob wrote:

    This type of music wil sound so much better in digital format. The very subtle details are perhaps not suited for vinyl. Listening in MQA on TIDAL it is very clean indeed. I love vinyl for its nostalgic merits. It can sound amazing with a great pressing. And both can be fun!

  • 2023-06-26 02:24:42 PM

    Bob wrote:

    This type of music wil sound so much better in digital format. The very subtle details are perhaps not suited for vinyl. Listening in MQA on TIDAL it is very clean indeed. I love vinyl for its nostalgic merits. It can sound amazing with a great pressing. And both can be fun!

    • 2023-06-26 02:25:26 PM

      Bob wrote:

      Sorry about the double post. Please remove