https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=3679463308/size=medium/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/transparent=true/The second release from Balcony View on the Birmingham-based experimental label Step Pepper is an object lesson in the infinite nature of the self. As cosmically abstract as it is lovingly intimate, A Portrait of Nothing constructs a minimalist cycle of songs delivered with the gravitas of a sacred fugue, without losing the technical texture found within the rich tradition of ambient music composed within the latter of half of the last century.
“Gentle Snow Falls Upon the Leaves” starts with the grandiloquence of a regal overture, as if composed in praise of some conquering czar, and creates what seems a startling contrast with the haiku simplicity of the song’s title. But the ornate measures, replete with harpsichord tonalities, soon take on a delayed drone which easily conjures imagery of monuments vanishing beneath a steady torrent of snow.
“A Song For My Friends” is a short set of funeral strings paired with the distant monosyllabic chants of drifting voices. This piece is aptly-titled in that Balcony View is inviting the listener to come to terms with the experience that will follow over the course of the album, that is, the attempt to paint the pastoral phonics of awareness.
“Love in Parting” presents once more a slow-tempoed procession of strings, until the melody is invaded by the warble of tempered guitar screeches, tastefully creating a subtle re-imagining of the first track. The screeches fade but then return to take forefront over the continually slowing melody, until a sudden shift closes off the last section of the song with a straightforward and pretty plucking of strings, accompanied by resounding echoes that replicate the contours of a cathedral filled with fuzzed-out hymns of a choir. But as the song closes, and everything else fades, it is only the strings that remain, if only for the most fleeting of moments.
The next twenty-six minutes of the album is comprised of the two movement suite “Neverending Dreamless Sleep.” In the first part, a sparse piano arrangement bleeds vapor trails of guitar reverberations that slowly fill the pauses between notes. As the song progresses, the low howl of a guitar accompanies the piano before overpowering its ever-slowing repetition. The second part gives way to a (comparatively) flighty tempo that quickly phases out into an eerie ether of seductive and surreal tones. As a whole, “Neverending Dreamless Sleep” is an expression of aural deja vu. It’s a Fata Morgana, a mirage, a musical equivalent of a Socratic shadow splayed out in lingering hues across a cavern wall.
“Passing of an Eternity” brings the album to its reverent close by once again returning to the familiar tones that haunted the first half of the album, delivering a measured murmer of vocals and strings that merges the two together into a nearly ubiquitous sound. The final minutes of the album are presided over by a harmony of chanting, bespeaking an intangible form of awareness, one that does not bother to distinguish between terror or joy as it makes it final sweep towards the hushed and sublime.
A Portrait of Nothing may hold answers as ambiguous as its title, but this takes nothing away from the state of tranced-out grace the album achieves through a repeat listening of each track. A baroque and byzantine experience, yet never obtuse or opaque. Balcony View delivers here a soundtrack for at least one way towards enlightenment.
You can listen to and purchase Balcony View’s A Portrait of Nothing here.