AMN Reviews: Trapist – Ballroom (2004; Thrill Jockey)

What a great surprise this one was! Like many of these capsule comments I’ve been doing, I bought it years ago, listened to it once, and since forgot about it. On this one specifically, I remember it not really connecting with me, but the reason escaped me. After hearing it again, I think I know why. It’s very slow, takes time to develop, requires a complete listen and most of all, it requires the listener to be “ok” with the idea that it’s not about the destination but the ride. I guess that wasn’t me back when I initially heard it.

Trapist is (was?) a Viennese three piece of guitars and electronics (Martin Stiewart), percussion and electronics (Martin Brandlmayr), and double bass (Joe Williamson).  All three of these musicians play with restraint and finesse throughout the entire record.

There are several ace things about this album.  First, they are brilliant at synthesizing the acoustic (drums, nylon string guitar, double bass) with the electronics. It’s done so naturally that it becomes a non-event within the overarching sound field.  In listening to this, I never once thought to separate these two elements.  The two are joined at the hip so tightly that the overall textures and moods come across as symbiotic ensemble playing, not just acoustic instruments over electronics.  Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?  Not completely, because in isolation there is some very fine playing from all, but from a wide angle…this is a substantial and quite lovely soundscape.

Secondly, thirdly and fourthly, it’s about the instruments and players themselves. It sounds like there are both nylon string and electric guitars here, but the nylon string guitars are very front and center. This amalgamation works, and it’s a beautiful marriage when it interacts with the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) electronics.

The drums and percussion are also wonderful. There is a lot of brushwork along with an arsenal of random and sundry percussive objects…all played in a very loose, effortless manner. It was fascinating just keying into this aspect.

Finally, the acoustic bass, played both in an arco and plucked fashion is extremely tasteful, although understated a bit. During the arco sections, it takes on an electronic drone sound where I had to do a sonic double-take to determine that it was actually an acoustic bass.

These reasons and more were enough for me to say that “Ballroom” is indeed a beautiful statement. I’m really glad I dusted this one off and it comes with my highest recommendation.  

Michael Eisenberg