Music

Barn Owl: Ancestral Star

Photo: Dianne Jones

Barn Owl’s guitar drone more thoroughly charts the previously discovered Western landscapes of the genre.


Barn Owl

Ancestral Star

Label: Thrill Jockey
US Release Date: 2010-11-02
UK Release Date: 2010-11-01
Label website
Band website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".

Culture

Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.

Music

Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".

Music

Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.

Music

Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.

Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.

Music

Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.

Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.