British soprano saxophonist Iain Ballamy and Norwegian percussionist Thomas Strønen have functioned as a duo in Food since 2007, when trumpeter Arve Henriksen and bassist Mats Eilertsen left the fold, but as their gorgeously contemplative new album Mercurial Balm reinforces, they’ve adapted to those losses magnificently. The 10 atmospheric pieces here were fully improvised, both in the studio and in concert, but there’s a lyric beauty and textural generosity that feels meticulously considered. As on the album’s predecessor Quiet Inlet, the duo is joined here by a revolving cast of guests that add extra color and melodic counterpoint: guitarists Christian Fennesz and Eivind Aarset (who both also add electronic processing to the mix), trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvaer, and the Indian singer and slide guitarist Prakash Sontakke. On a piece like “Moonpie” you can hear those helpers doing much more than draping extra tones over the sonic landscape, as Molvaer and Ballamy deftly intertwine their spontaneous solos, slaloming around one another in an elegant, high-level dance. On “Phase” the guitars veer from cloudy and drifty to acidic and biting, with Strønen giving the interplay a march-like propulsion, while “Chanterelle” imagines Hindustani music on Jupiter.
Each of the guests change the complexion of the tracks they appear on, but Ballamy and Strønen firmly maintain an identifiable sound throughout. The former brings a gentle astringency to his instrument, blowing lengthy improvisations marked by rich melodic elaboration: he combines the spirituality of John Coltrane and the wide-open spaces of Scandinavian folk music even though he hails from the UK. Strønen delivers a wide array of sounds, bringing a surprisingly melodic quality to his often frenetic kit work, adapting the clattery sound of Tony Oxley with the feel of Indonesian gamelan. Both players bathe their output in milky, ethereal electronics to heighten the music’s meditative ambience without softening its edge; it’s at once soothing and exploratory.