Review: Deerhoof & Dal Niente - Balter / Saunier

by Jeff Siegfried

“Balter/Saunier,” is a new collaborative album between the art rock band Deerhoof, and the new music collective Ensemble Dal Niente, out last week on New Amsterdam Records. It is comprised of one large work each by Marcos Balter and Greg Saunier and a shorter work by Balter. It is at once a daring inter-genre partnership and an indication of how much fertile ground already exists between these two genres. The resulting music is full of all the affects that often come with new frontiers: energy, optimism, lightness, and transparency.  

The album opens with Balter’s seven-movement work, “Meltdown Upshot.” Pop infused and catchy, the work is well suited to Deerhoof and yet demonstrates that the group is able to venture as far outside of its usual territory as Balter is.

The first track, “Credo,” belies a rhythmic drive that will later emerge. Word and sound clash pleasurably in this prelude as they do throughout the piece. The lyrics, “It must be heard and seen / It must have beat” are set against a multi-layered ambient texture. Accordingly, they can be heard and seen only with careful attention and there is, as of yet, no beat. Deerhoof’s lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki further de-familiarizes language by decoupling diction and poetic emphasis from one another. Her delivery is at once deadpan and mellifluous.

Balter’s range is evident throughout. The third movement, “Ready,” again creates an ironic contrast between lyric and texture, setting the words “Symmetrical, accessible, lovely lines / Easy, catchy, snappy, silly, ready,” against a complex 9/4 meter and an acerbic atonal harmonic landscape. The fifth track, “Home” pays homage to Balter’s native Brazil, recalling Antonio Carlos Jobim and featuring Saunier’s excellent work on the cajon. 

The collaboration between performers is consistently engaging. Saxophonist Ryan Muncy’s bacchanalian eruptions contrast with Saunier’s martial snare work in the sixth movement “Cherubim,” while hornist, Matthew Oliphant, stands almost as a third vocalist in harmonies reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash in the final track, “Rapture,” which completes a trinity of religiously titled tracks. Despite its upbeat veneer, this complex work requires repeated listening.

Balter’s “Pois que nada que dure, ou que durando” again has religious connotations, but this time they are Buddhist. The use of triangles, singing bowls, and Chant-like vocalization all recall the Zen purification ritual. Jesse Langen’s sublimely simple guitar playing forms a bridge between the percussive and the vocal. The lyrics, drawn from Fernando Pessoa’s poem of the same name, translate as “For that nothing lasts, or that lasting.” This short work, much less a rock/classical fusion than a ceremonial rite bisects the album and prepares the listener for what follows. 

Saunier’s compositional contribution to the album, “Deerhoof Chamber Variations” recalls both earlier Deerhoof releases and his roots as a composer. Both artists decidedly step into opposite territory with this project.  In this case, Saunier’s reliance on classical instruments, played with traditional techniques, yields something that sounds less like typical Deerhoof than Balter’s composition. Instead, this particular instrumentation - especially the use of cello, horn, and harp - irresistibly recalls Joanna Newsom. It is an instrumentation that highlights Saunier’s brilliance with harmony in ways that guitar and bass alone hardly can. 

While Balter’s first composition is decidedly a piece for rock band, Saunier’s sounds much more like a work for chamber ensemble, in the vein of his earlier collaboration with the string quartet, Brooklyn Rider. The overall impression is of three albums in one, with Balter’s first seven tracks and Saunier’s closing sectional work each forming an album unto itself. It makes one wonder what might come of a closer, more prolonged, collaboration between these two composers and these two ensembles. 

The success of this project aside, one can hope that it points to a larger trend of intersection between new music and rock (a genre that assumes perennial newness anyway). There was something incredibly genial about this album. Balter and Saunier write as though for one another. This graciousness of creative spirit behooves the domains of art rock and contemporary classical music very well. I can only hope for more similar collaborations in the future.