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Balmorhea churns a stream of ideas and influences into fourth album

Patrick Caldwell

When "Constellations," the fourth full-length album from Austin instrumental group Balmorhea, finally sees the light of day on Feb. 23 , it will have been sitting on the shelf an entire year.

In fact, Balmorhea — an unplugged, acoustic take on the kind of sweeping post-rock that's made Explosions in the Sky famous, with an added dash of influences from the oft-neglected world of classical music — finished the record before releasing their third album in March of last year.

"Yeah, it was recorded and mixed even before we released the last one, which is weird," says a laughing Michael Muller, 30, who plays guitar, piano and banjo for the band and who forms the core of the group alongside fellow songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rob Lowe, 25. "So now these songs that are on this record that hasn't even come out yet, we've been playing them for a year, and some of them we're already sick of playing."

"Are we?" asks Lowe, eying his bandmate quizzically over steaming cups of joe at Progress Coffee.

"Nah, not yet," confesses Muller sheepishly.

In some ways, "Constellations" signals a back-to-the-basics approach — as opposed to a step backward — for the band, which also features Aisha Burns on violin, Travis Chapman on upright bass and Nicole Cern on cello.

When "All Is Wild, All Is Silent" emerged in 2009, it was a full-bodied, elaborate affair, full of waves of guitar, percussion, pop-style crescendos and even the use of wordless vocals.

It also had a compelling back-story, as Lowe and Muller crafted it under inspiration from the correspondence of colonist William B. DeWees, who conquered the Texas frontier in the early 1800s. DeWees sent lyrical letters describing the expansiveness, the beauty and the harshness of the frontier, and his sweeping vision translated to the thoughtful swells that characterized "All Is Wild, All Is Silent."

By contrast, "Constellations" sounds like a purposeful attempt to stride in the opposite direction, a sparer, more pensive form of Balmorhea. If "All Is Wild, All Is Silent" described the frontier, "Constellations," as the title implies, describes the night sky, the peaceful, empty void where the stars live. It's stark and quiet(er). Only two of the nine songs feature percussion — after all, in space, no one can hear you drum.

"All the songs were written in the wintertime or in the fall. So it's all very night-time-y, like rocking at sea, sort of pondering," says Muller.

"A little bit ominous, maybe."

Of course, you could trace that ominous tone and nautical imagery straight back to "Moby Dick," which Lowe cites as a loose inspiration for "Constellations." Aside from the musical inspirations you might expect — from Beethoven to Avro Part — Lowe says he's just as influenced by the books, movies and other visual art that he encounters.

"I often finish something, a book or whatever, and think to myself, 'God, these ideas are amazing and they'd work really well musically.' It's like if I like something, I try to move it into a different spectrum of media," says Lowe. "But I think in all art you see that going on, that reinterpretation of other stuff."

That reinterpretation — often of literature — seems all the more impressive in the context of Balmorhea's lyric-less music. The absence of words prevents Lowe and Muller from making specific statements, granting the band's songs a malleability of meaning that both its chief songwriters view as an asset.

"Ambiguity is just a structural limitation of music without words, but it's something we embrace. We enjoy that it can't be very overt. It can't be very explicit," explains Lowe. "Each listener is free to interpret it however they want. Somebody can hear a song and think it's really sad. And another listener can hear it and think it's really happy."

Both men embraced music at an early age: Lowe began learning piano early in childhood, at about the same age that Muller first began experimenting with the guitar. Muller was influenced by his father, a traditional folk aficionado who played bedtime songs for his son.

They met through a summer camp but reconnected years later while Lowe was attending the University of Texas. Mashing their solo recording projects together, they self-released a self-titled debut album and played a few tentative shows — their first was at that haven of atmospheric and thoughtful music, Beerland.

Their partnership quickly garnered fans local, national and international, and they found a perfect home on sympathetic Austin record label Western Vinyl. They released a follow-up, "Rivers Arms," one year after their self-titled release, and "All Is Wild, All Is Silent" the year after that. Importantly, in each other they found not only an ideal songwriting partner, but an equally prolific creator — between the one-album-a-year schedule they also found time to score commercials, video games and films, including the upcoming French-Canadian feature "Dog Pound."

In fact, they work so speedily that they had to shelve "Constellations" for an entire year, giving its predecessor time to breathe — and the audience and media time to digest it before moving on.

"It's weird because it takes a long time in the music industry for things to make their way out from your hands and to get out there," says Muller.

"And so if you're kind of quickly moving, if your ideas are changing rapidly, you have to hold onto them a little bit longer until people are kind of on the same page as you."

On the eve of their fourth album release and preparing for a jaunt through Europe, Lowe and Muller are, for the first time in a while, not actively working on crafting or preparing a new record. But with interest in the band expanding all the time, it's unlikely they'll slow down anytime soon — Muller notes that their e-mail inbox grows richer with opportunities by the month.

"If the week goes by and nothing happens, it feels real strange, almost," says Muller. "We feel like 'What do we do? We gotta do something now.'"