Sidney Franklyn gets to grips with the ambient duo’s sensory debut.
Mauve, the debut album from Amsterdam-based ambient duo Balm, is an exercise in restraint. Every moving part faultlessly enacts its own appointed function; you’d be tempted to compare its operation to finely-tuned cogs in a well-oiled machine, though the rattle and whurrs of metal on metal have been swapped out for a soft textural palette that permeates the release. The resultant feeling is less industrial, more pastoral.
Writing over email, Luke Elliott (one half of Balm) cites the sonic ventures of H. Takahashi and Suzanne Kraft as their primary influences, alongside frequent Kraft collaborator Jonny Nash. But while these artists are all modern contemporaries, a straight line can be drawn to their work from the consciously environmental and new age music of the late 70s and 80s. Light in the Attic Records put together Kankyō Ongaku last year, an excellent compilation of Japanese ambient from 1980-1990, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the breezy guitar strums of “Time Is Away” nestled in between Hiroshi Yoshimura, Satoshi Ashikawa, and Yasuaki Shimizu.
Having moved from Leeds to Amsterdam for work, Elliott first met Lisbon-native Luis Martins as volunteers helping to revert overgrown farmland to wetland reserve, and perhaps it’s the project’s ecological origins that has informed its underlying affinity with nature. Even as Elliott describes the two spent years he and Martins spent molding Balm’s sound, his language can’t help but circle back to semantics borrowed from the natural world. Their artistic process is described as happening “naturally”; Mauve is defined as an exploration of something “organic”.
Each of its seven tracks were constructed from live recording sessions revisited and reworked in minute detail, and as we wade our way through lush soundscapes teeming with vibrant energy, nothing that crops up feels accidental or out of place. Following the short introduction of “Linear Minor”, the delicate interplay between the high notes and comforting bass hum in “The Palace” resembles a great ecosystem locked in cosmic dance. We’re returned to this dynamism with the album’s closer “Low-Pressure Front”, in which despite the focus of attention constantly being shifted, its momentum is never lost.
But restraint can also be a double edged sword. While moments of excess during the album’s brief 22-minute runtime are few and far between, in remaining firmly fixed to the rails Mauve does run the risk of monotony. Despite being the longest track at nearly five minutes, centrepiece “Idle Patterns” never quite manages to shake its inertia, a stasis felt all the more keenly when juxtaposed with the much livelier (and shorter) “Flecks”. Nevertheless, faulting a debut for a lack of ambition speaks volumes about the potential of those behind it. Working out the chinks is what the next album is for. Onward now, to pastures new.
Released via Bandcamp on the 19th of June, Mauve is the debut release of Balm, an Amsterdam-based duo consisting of Luis Martins and Luke Elliott. All proceeds from Mauve are to be donated to the Try Center for Research Training and Education, a non-profit organisation that aims to empower and inspire women and youth through education, research, and training. The TCRTE work towards sustainable peace, conflict resolution, and development in the Middle East.
Follow Balm on Instagram: @balmsounds
Sidney Franklyn is a freelance writer, specialising in the influence of contemporary politics on internet music culture. As well as being Threads’ Head of Editorial and a member of the Production Team, Sidney is a Music News Writer at MXDWN UK. If you would like to contribute to the Threads blog, you can contact him via the email address [email protected].