Composer Bill Ryan’s Billband first made waves with their 2004 debut, Blurred, which added art-rock touches to vividly melodic, minimalistic indie chamber music. The ensemble’s new album, Towards Daybreak (due out on the 29th from Innova) is a suite, and it’s considerably darker. Which comes as no surprise, considering that it’s bookended by two elegies, the first for Ryan’s father and the second for his mother. Terse, elegant motifs shift shape and move between constantly changing combinations of woodwinds and strings, usually pensive, often somber and occasionally building to moments of sheer horror. The group assembled for this project is sensational: cellists Ashley Bathgate, Pablo Mahave-Veglia and Paul de Jong, pianist Vicky Chow, violinist Todd Reynolds, bass clarinetist Michael Lowenstern, saxophonist Jonathan Nichol, and Bang on a Can All-Stars percussionist David Cossin.
Interestingly, the opening elegy exhibits more of an Indian summer nocturnal ambience, its simple but resonant Philip Glass-tinged three-note riffs growing more lush as it progresses. The title track works more spacious permutations on the theme, insistent piano or vibraphone pedalpoint anchoring a long series of harmonic exchanges between strings and woodwinds, the countermelodies of early dawn busying themselves and then reconverging with an aptly added brightness. The upward trajectory continues with syncopation and even a bit of a funky edge on Rapid Assembly, which hints at a Balkan dance as it rises and falls: it has a vivid austerity in the same vein as recent work by New York ensemble Build.
Counterintuitively dancing phrases alternate with airy sustained sheets over a gently insistent pulse in A Simple Place, followed by Solitude in Transit, the most gripping and darkest work here, much of it essentially a two-chord jam fueled by Reynolds’ gleaming, hauntingly hypnotic phrasing. Frantic gives the vamp a driving agression that, while far from frantic, builds tension with apprehensive close harmonies. By contrast, Sparkle is everything its title implies, a twinkling lullaby. The suite closes with a reprise of the opening theme, which then darkens immediately with an imploring, Julia Wolfe-esque relentlessness, rising to a big crescendo that only hints at the kind of anguish that comes from losing a family member unexpectedly. That Ryan never lets the music become mawkish or sentimental is its strongest suit: subtlety and grace triumph despite all odds. Billband play le Poisson Rouge on Feb 10.