Balam acab — wander / wonder — album review
The rapid emergence of micro-genres has a long history in music, but the Internet has intensified the process. Online communication creates a situation where young artists, separated by geography but brought together through the web, can share the same obsessions and quickly develop remarkably similar aesthetics. The umbrella of music sometimes called witch house is perhaps the most obvious example of this in the last few years, since it combined musical concerns (moody synths, slow tempos, warped vocals, allusions to Southern rap) with a specific visual aesthetic (anonymous producers shielded by hoodies, Christian imagery, deep knowledge of the computer keyboard's symbol keys), and so many artists with these exact qualities appeared simultaneously. Unusually, the bulk of the movement could be traced to precisely one source, Salem, demonstrating how much sway that sometimes reviled outfit had over the minds of budding young producers who spend way too much time online.
Once a scene or sound crystalizes, you can bet that the most interesting artists to emerge from it will quickly set off on their own and develop an individual voice. Balam Acab, the project of 20-year-old Pennsylvanian Alec Koone, was rightly slotted with witch house when he released his See Birds EP in 2010. He has the warped voices and the slow tempos, he was on the right label, and his IRL identity had a cultivated air of mystery. But the careful construction of See Birds hinted that his musical ear was a cut above, and now his excellent full-length debut, Wander / Wonder, confirms it. This is a personal and distinctive record with its share of current reference points that nonetheless doesn't need a scene to prop it up.
A few things set Balam Acab apart from the pack, first being the overall mood. The post-Salem "dark and creepy" crawl became a cliché in record time, but Wander / Wonder, despite the spectral voices that take the lead on every track, has no hints of nightmares or grim violence. Instead, its primary concern is simple aesthetic beauty, the way a small and specific combination of sounds, carefully arranged but given room to breathe, can have a deep emotional impact. It's pretty, in other words, but its prettiness never feels manipulative or overbearing. It's the sort of music that exists at the intersection between art and design, but it manages to avoid feeling sterile.
There are eight tracks here in 37 minutes, the perfect length given the consistent mood. They have vague titles like "Apart" and "Now Time" and "Oh, Why" that serve as a light tint but don't really point to anything in particular. In fact, differentiating between the tracks seems sort of beside the point, since so many of the same motifs pop up over and over again: The album feels very much like one sustained thing. The basic elements are twinkly keyboards and and music-box chimes, dusty crackles floating on sounds of shifting liquid, and deep basslines bumping into the occasional drum machine clap. Floating above it all are the voices, pitched up to accentuate their delicacy and set loose in a cloud of echo. While the current vogue is for sampled vocals that allude to R&B, Balam Acab's mostly have a classical feel, sounding like they are pulled from recordings of ancient hymns and airs. Accentuating the "chamber dub" qualities are liberal samples of orchestral sections and nylon string guitar. But the most important instrument of all is silence, which frames every note and brings it to the foreground.