Barn Owl, have, over the process of a few albums, mutated from an organically spiritual drone machine, beloved of more contemplative weedians, into something which could be called ‘dark ambient’ although that label might be fraught with associations of formless, pointless background music. For Barn Owl’s work is never background, it’s subtly immersive, sure, but after a while you are consumed by the overwhelming emotion that is presented, in the form admittedly of often very pretty, effected guitar/synth couplings.
They are not exploring ‘musics’ here, or assembling ‘found recordings,’ indeed anything drily academic seems far from their purpose. Yes they may be using a lot of layered synths now, but the music has a near religious reverence about it, a fervent, felt humanity which makes it continually compelling, and far from drone for drone’s sake. And the fully integrated nature of the synths means nothing sounds too much like a sci-fi movie soundtrack from the late 80s.
This new album, their second for undeniably hip label Thrill Jockey, is venturing further from their ritualistic guitar meditations into soundtrack-for-an-unmade-film synthorama territory, opening with the beautiful, foggy ‘Void Redux’, which builds a stumbling rhythm from picked one-note guitar, and unknown percussion, but there’s really only a tertiary attempt at focusing the track in this way, it’s much more about the giant cloud of melancholy synth that is foregrounded by the simple ‘rhythm’ elements.
It draws you in, but for the unitiated, it might seem a lengthy build-up to something rocky and testorone-fuelled, however what you get is a churchy elegy, with plaintive organ and dark synth pads, The Long Shadow, which is like the keyboard player from Ghost on heavy downers, and lost in a wilderness, i.e. completely beautiful, but no rocks to sit on here.
Comparisons are inevitable with restrained, soulful droners like Labradford and Eno in his latter early ambient phase (particularly the stunning Dunwich Beach, Autumn 1960 – I recommend you check this out if you like murky soundscapes). However Barn Owl offer a little more warmth still, despite the fairly alienating, John Carpenter on mogodon bleakness of it all.
And that bleakness reaches its peak in the late-Swans-like track Blood Echo (even the name sounds like something from Soundtracks For The Blind). Finger cymbals are clinked mournfully within a darkened cave of morbid drone which could make you feel you’re being escorted across the river Styx by the blind boatman, if you were that way inclined. Synth combined with a bit of sparse drum (machine?) work to give you a queasy, but delightfully morose five minutes.
Then, after relatively brief but lovely guitar-focused interlude ‘Pacific Isolation’, comes the somewhat predictably epic final track, however the enormous, billowing ‘Opulent Decline’ earns every minute of its 17-odd minutes running time, conjuring up a feeling of a hot air balloon flight across vast deserts, several layers of drone unfurling and collapsing in the most fantastically inspired and accomplished way. It ebbs and flows, and becomes fairly minimal after a swelling beginning, but high-register drones fill the picture like a slowly coalescing and intensifying sunset. You are left transported; not just mellowed out, but enlivened by the piece’s natural, quiet intensity.
There’s not too much to say about this album as a set of statements, its more variations on a theme, and that theme appears to be a beautiful, all-encompassing melancholy.
Scribed by: James Parker