Barn Owl is the guitar drone collaboration of Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras. On their new release for Thrill Jockey, Ancestral Star, they continue to explore the Morricone tinged Western soundtrack side of the genre — first pioneered by the heavyweights Earth — that they have done so thoroughly and competently on their previous albums. For this album, Caminiti and Porras took their time in the studio and expanded the instrumentation on the songs by experimenting with bowed guitar, and by inviting Marielle Jakobsons to play violin, the Norman Conquest to contribute eerie chanting vocals, and Portraits to add some nuanced percussion. Technically, this is their most accomplished and complex album. They worked more congruently on the composition and sequence of the songs — and the album has a nice continuity of atmosphere.
While Barn Owl hits many of the common places of heavy guitar drone, the duo makes it worthwhile by fully exploring the direction and limits of the genre. Some songs, like “Visions in Dust”, which has a driving tempo, and “Night Shroud”, which sounds like an echo or answer of the previous song, build a beat in the spaghetti Western/horror style. Some songs consist mostly in slow waves of guitar wash, completely eschewing more traditional modes. Barn Owl provides all the quintessential and best moments to be expected of the genre: the feedback laden resonance that finally fully fleshes out into the thickness of its harmonics; the creeping slowness that seems ready to build but doesn’t.
Only in this type of music do you truly hear the range available to the electric guitar, through the enhancement of distortion, reverb, and so on. The guitar becomes a new kind of instrument, no longer the strumming backbone of a pop song. The slow build never climaxes. Notes pile up then pause and deflect and spaces grow. This makes Barn Owl different from a band like Boris, whose songs start slow and ponderous, but very often end up rocking out. The slow playing that Barn Owl loves runs interference on the expected pyrotechnics of the typical metal guitar heroics. Though metal is a clear predecessor, Barn Owl travels a completely different road.
Since the songs on Ancestral Star don’t follow a typical pop format, they rest in your memory differently than a normal rock song. Despite the inherent repetition of drone music — the same notes in the same order with little deviation except the building of resonance, reverb, feedback etc. — there is a linear feel to this album. Barn Owl takes you soaring over wasted landscapes apparently without any markers. The desolate imagery comes through the song titles, if not the sound alone, which read as if they were scene descriptions of the Western film this album should accompany. This territory may have been charted before, but Barn Owl’s revisiting leads to a thorough plotting of each corner of the desert of drone.
By translating the sound of one song into a linear movement, we can see the sense of travel Barn Owl’s aesthetic conveys. The title track opens with a shimmering synth that shifts the sound temporarily from Western to sci-fi, or from metal to new age. The new age connotations are at the periphery of Barn Owl’s aesthetic, rounding off the doom in hope. As the synth fades into the more familiar guitar feedback wash, the song begins to sound like a horde of locusts buzzing. The noise builds louder and louder, bringing together the dark and the light sides, hinting that evil may in fact be salvation. All of a sudden, it goes quiet, as if you’ve passed through a tunnel to the other side. But the sound washes back on you quietly, almost unheard, while guitar notes plunk down like dripping water.
Barn Owl sometimes seems confused about whether to march forward or stay in place. “Cavern Hymn” begins with an acoustic guitar strumming over white noise. The song almost takes on a chord progression in a typical folk manner, but instead dances around the form with arpeggiated chords that seem to lead nowhere. Anchoring the song in place is the humming bass note that carries on throughout the song. “Awakening” returns to the Western sound with a riff that almost seems like it’s going somewhere. A melodic line repeats, then climbs down. But once this seemingly memorable tune gets established, the elements of structure become drowned in ambient noise.
Maybe the entry point to drone is to lose track of a song before it starts — to begin with tuning. Every instrument on the album makes an appearance in this manner: on “Twilight”, the piano ripples in octaves, like someone is double-checking a tuning job. “Flatlands” introduces strings into the mix and sounds like the tune-up of an orchestra taking place in an echo chamber. This song at first has a brighter Eno-type ambiance than the typical approach to drone-metal, but when the song finally devolves into guitar (the prominent instrument on all the tracks), the tone becomes harsh and metallic as if the strings were plucked beyond the bridge.
The album peaks at the end. “Light form the Mesa” is built from chords resonating and looping back on one another. The song constructs and then breaks a melodic line. Drums and tambourine come in, simulating a slightly cliché Native American sound. The song climaxes as loud chords feedback with a chorus of voices singing wordless over it. Then a coda of a feedback squall provides a fitting resolution for an album that starts with the ringing out of a single chord patiently as the sound fills the room.
This music, like other ambient forms, keeps a minimal or root position in your consciousness. With a note or feedback hum, it sets a tone, creates an atmosphere, and shrouds you in it without comment. Barn Owl may repeat the past somewhat, but in a masterful way. Instead of taking away from the music, the sense of recognition that comes with these songs and their linked aesthetic gives you the necessary preparation to travel down the dusty and empty paths of drone.