Balam Acab – Wander/Wonder (2011) [Tri Angle] // Grade: A+
When Balam Acab released See Birds last year, simple math grouped him with the burgeoning witch house scene. There was the vaguely satanic name (actually, Balam Acab is a Mayan demigod), a dearth of information about the artist, and – most importantly – reverberating, dragged out beats. A deeper listening of See Birds raised questions about this assumption; Wander/Wonder blows it out of the water.
Water, it turns out, dominates any conversation of Wander/Wonder. As on See Birds, it is always gurgling, bubbling, or washing up against the shore. But here, some of it has evaporated: now, there’s an even greater focus on atmospherics. Throughout the record, Balam Acab (20-year old student Alec Koone) crafts songs with layers upon layers of ambience, building a sonic/kinetic energy, only to stop on a dime and cherish the empty space.
That approach to songwriting is evident from the start, on the appropriately titled “Welcome.” Layers of mechanical and organic samples, faint echoes, and Gregorian chant are percussive despite only hints of a drum beat. Out of nowhere, the song opens into a sweeping, orchestral turn, as if a curtain has been pulled back. While it’s the same layers as before, the tone is reversed – and only for a tantalizing moment, before moving on to the next composition.
Wander/Wonder is also a meditation on mainstream music, notably hip-hop and R&B. While others reach for a Cassie lyric or an Brandy chorus, Balam Acab is milling the smallest bits of melody for what they represent sonically, not nostalgically. Whether it’s hip-hop beats transmitted over a fuzzy AM radio or an R&B lyric pitch-shifted into unrecognizable oblivion, Balam Acab is clearly influenced by his forebearers, yet with no reverence paid to “how things are done.” As the album progresses, the ghostly vocals come into focus. Whereas the phonemes and gestures of “Apart” and “Motion” shade – rather than color – the songs, the echoing lyrics of “Expect” are almost decipherable behind the speaker-rupturing bass and a crescendo of violins.
Balam Acab does lovelorn romanticism better than his bedroom producer contemporaries, and unnerving and creepy better than his witch house ones. The most moving song on the record, “Oh Why,” is one of its most gentle. But while it’s melody is simple, it’s construction is not: he samples a skipping record, what sounds like a rain stick, the flutter of a bird’s wings, and some uneasy dissonance for a soundscape that is marked by juxtaposition. The record closes, ironically, with the song with the most in common with witch house. On “Fragile Hope,” water drips like plucked guitar strings, and ominous steps in the sand and uneasy breathing infuse the song with a sense of paranoia. A muffled, rolling drumbeat builds and builds until it’s suddenly gone; there’s a vocal in the distance, but it’s too late. Balam Acab has wandered elsewhere.